Managing Conflict Between Teams How to build mutual respect when team members clash

By Stever Robbins

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Q: Several of the groups in my company neither like each other nor work well together. I feel like I'm dealing with a ticking time bomb. Where should I begin?

A: Your teams don't have to like each other to work together, but they do need to respect and value each other's existence. Your job is helping them establish that respect. They say we learn from experience, and this will be quite the experience--so roll up your sleeves, and let's begin.

One way to mediate is to sit down with the groups. Discuss events, feelings and interpretations. Find common goals and work out a compromise. (The book Difficult Conversationsoutlines this process with individuals, and it's easy to apply it to groups.) But I'm feeling contrary this morning. So here's a radically different approach: Ignore history and build respect from the ground up. Proceed at your own risk.

Ultimately, the groups share a common goal: Both want the company to succeed. They may also share more tactical goals. If both teams contribute to the same product, having a successful product launch is a shared goal. Before you start working with the groups, get a sense of what shared goals you know exist.

Next, help each group own the shared goal as their real goal. The more they develop this idea themselves, the more they'll buy in. Meet with each group individually and ask:

  • How do you define success as a team? They'll give you a narrow answer, probably corresponding to their bonus plan: "Success means scheduling and hosting a product launch extravaganza."
  • Ask how their success relates to the division/company's success. Follow up their answer with "Does that answer change how the team should measure its own success?" Help them move their thinking to the shared goal: "Even though the marketing is critical to the rollout, true success means a successful product launch in total." Work until everyone owns the shared goal.

With the shared goal taking root, ask: "What's blocking this larger goal? How about our relationship with the other teams also working toward this goal?" Point out that success means all project teams must meet their goals, even if those goals aren't in the current team's area. Even though product developers may not write ad copy, they must still support marketing's goals if they want employment this time next year.

And even though product developers may not write ad copy, they do have strengths they can offer. They may be good at building systems or analyzing problems. Have each team identify the strengths they have that they can offer across the company. Make this fun. Play! Let the teams really revel in their own greatness. This may be the first time they've had the chance.

After celebrating their own strengths, have the teams brainstorm the strengths of some of the other teams and design a request they might make of another team. Keep each team focused on the strengths of other teams. If they fall into negativity ("They're always late"), simply remind the group, "OK, then we certainly won't ask them to help us be on time. But maybe we can offer them some of our scheduling skills?"

Have the teams keep their own written record of this part of the strengths conversation, especially the strengths they discover in other teams. If they put it in writing themselves and share it, it will have much more psychological power than a one-time discussion.

At this point, you've reoriented the teams on the positive: what they have to offer and what other teams have to offer. It's fine to acknowledge that not everything runs smoothly, but then move that acknowledgment right along to asking how the teams can collectively keep things running.

Now bring the groups together. Frame the meeting as a joint exploration of how you can, as a group, move past conflict and reach the shared goals that the groups have already owned individually. Start by having each group share its strengths and theories about other groups' strengths. Create a visible reminder of what everyone has to offer and what others see as their strengths. Follow up by having each group share their requests. Everyone will now have offered some value to the group and asked for some in return.

During this discussion, past problems, complaints and blame may crop up. Acknowledge the problem and reorient the conversation immediately back to strengths and solutions: "Yes, group B has been late on deliverables in the past. Group B, do you see any strengths around the room that could lead you to make a request that could help?"

Teams must be free to refuse a request, but the refusal must include a reason and a discussion of how other resources might satisfy the request. Even "no" becomes a collaboration in the requesting team's success.

Have each team write up and sign a sheet explaining the commitments they've made. Duplicate those sheets and share them with all the teams. Check in on a regular basis to make sure each team is fulfilling its commitments (or open a discussion if they aren't). This intervention involves several principles of good communication:

  • Rally around a shared big-picture goal that everyone buys into.
  • Keep the big picture in mind constantly, returning to it when conflict arises.
  • Relentlessly focus on strengths and successes.
  • Have each team take responsibility for contributing to shared goals and thus each other's success.
  • De-emphasize team expectations and emphasize each team's contributions.
  • Put strengths and agreements in writing to serve as a reminder if stress and daily minutia cause momentary relapses. (Also, agreements in writing are much more likely to be followed.)

As an entrepreneur, technologist, advisor and coach, Stever Robbins seeks out and identifies high-potential start-ups to help them develop the skills, attitudes and capabilities they need to succeed. He has been involved with start-up companies since 1978 and is currently an investor or advisor to several technology and Internet companies including ZEFER Corp., University Access Inc., RenalTech, Crimson Soutions and PrimeSource. He has been using the Internet since 1977, was a co-founder of FTP Software in 1986, and worked on the design team of Harvard Business School's "Foundations" program. Stever holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a computer science degree from MIT. His Web site is a

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.

Stever Robbins is a venture coach, helping entrepreneurs and early-stage companies develop the attitudes, skills and capabilities needed to succeed. He brings to bear skills as an entrepreneur, teacher and technologist in helping others create successful ventures.

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