magazine | Aug 1, 2023 |
The counterintuitive truth about dealing with conflict on your team

Think a team that never fights is the healthiest outcome? Think again. Cultivating a foundation of trust—and then welcoming conflict when it comes—will boost team morale, collaboration and productivity.

What’s better: a team that never argues or one that’s always duking it out?

The counterintuitive truth about dealing with conflict on your team
Kimberlee Gorsline
Char Beck

Kimberlee Gorsline, founder of the Seattle firm Kimberlee Marie Interiors, had always assumed it was the former. “I used to think no conflict meant we had a really great, harmonious team,” she says. “But I realized that there actually was tension, but no one felt comfortable enough to say anything or knew how to say it.” In the course of conversations with her staff, Gorsline learned that some had silenced their design opinions for fear of stepping on senior staff’s toes, which created a dynamic of resentment and triangulation. Worst of all, much of it was playing out behind the scenes, where there was no opportunity to clear up misunderstandings. Gorsline, who had been inspired to probe deeper into team dynamics after reading Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, decided to tackle her firm’s culture issue head-on.

“I hadn’t set the stage with, ‘If you’ve got a problem, let’s create a situation where we feel safe [to talk it through],” she says. “The book describes how teams build on a foundation of trust: Once you have trust, you can have conflict. Once you have conflict, you can have commitment, then accountability, and then results. I was missing commitment, where you get buy-in from your team.”

Armed with worksheets from the book, Gorsline gathered her employees and had them rate the team on a scale of one to five in different areas, including conflict, and then share their responses. Before diving in, she provided guidelines and parameters for how to safely talk about tough topics. “I coach my team to assume the best intent in each other. When you’re feeling frustrated, ask yourself, what assumptions am I making that maybe aren’t actually true?” she says. “I also encourage an open mindset to avoid defensiveness. Saying you’re curious about someone’s words, rather than angry, gives the other person a chance to explain.”

Giving everyone a space to voice their feelings cleared the air for a healthier team dynamic to take hold, says Gorsline. “Easing internal tensions led to external results,” she says. “Once that tension was relieved, there was more harmony and productivity. You have to be in a Zen-like state when you are trying to be creative—the energy was no longer going toward that [draining] interpersonal dynamic. ”

Still, the process of healthy conflict isn’t for the faint of heart, she cautions. “When you open up these conversations, you’re going to get some honesty,” says Gorsline. “One of the designers on my team did end up resigning, because in the course of opening up, we discovered that she was unhappy in her role. It was something I couldn’t change because of the business’s needs. But ultimately, it was very amicable and the best decision for everybody.”

Moving forward, Gorsline is committed to keeping her firm’s atmosphere a safe, positive, emotionally open one—starting with herself. “I won’t ask my team to be vulnerable about something I haven’t first been vulnerable on,” she says. “I’m forthcoming about my faults and struggles and how I’m processing those things. I think that naturally creates more space for them to feel like they can do the same.”

Homepage image: Kimberlee Gorsline chose crisp marine blue cabinetry and warm wood and leather hues in this Washington kitchen to frame views of the Snohomish Valley and the Cascade Mountains in the distance | Miranda Estes

This article originally appeared in Summer 2023 issue of Business of Home. Subscribe or become a BOH Insider for more.

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