Team Conflict Lessons from the 4th Grade

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School ChildrenI witnessed an argument among teammates the other day that made me realize how inept we are at dealing with emotions in the workplace. In fact, grade school kids are better equipped than most adults at resolving conflict.

I was working with a team that’s building software, and they were planning their next big meeting with their client. Mitch, an analyst fresh out of college, wanted to demo the software the team had been building during the client meeting. Even though it wasn’t finished, he felt they could explain that to the client and still get some valuable feedback. Sara, the seasoned project leader, stated that a premature demo could easily turn into a disaster, and she wasn’t going to let that happen. Mitch didn’t like that answer, but he seemed to go along with it. However, I could see his anger building during the remainder of the meeting, and while we were wrapping up, he said to Sara angrily “you’re not open to new ways of doing things”, and he went on to chide her for shutting down progressive ideas. As he was speaking, I could detect the anger welling in Sara. When he finished, she retorted “you have a problem with me because you think I’m old and out-dated, and I don’t think you would question my decision if I were a man”, and she went on to furiously tell him why she should be listened to. A simple disagreement about demoing software had turned into a rift that will likely outlive the lifespan of the team.

What can we learn from fourth graders about this? Kids are being taught to resolve conflict by taking responsibility for their feelings rather than blaming them on someone else, and they do this by expressing how they feel in “I statements”. So if Robby calls Suzy a name that makes her mad, Suzy is taught to form an “I statement” such as “I felt mad when you called me a name because you were making fun of me”. Instead of Suzy throwing accusations at Robby, she’s owning her own feelings and not projecting her anger onto Robby. It’s a healthy way to deal with emotions, and adults can learn from it.

Mitch and Sara were experiencing typical emotions that arise all the time in teams, yet they let the situation turn into a damaging interchange of accusations. Instead, Mitch could have said something like “I felt rejected when you disagreed with my suggestion because it was a good idea”. And Sara could have said something like “I felt offended when you questioned my decision because it showed a lack of respect”. Stating the problem in this way doesn’t solve it but it’s a healthy way to surface it. They could have then had a further discussion about the decision or about respect, or they could have just let it go while being aware of each others’ feelings. Most importantly, they wouldn’t have created the accusatory interchange that will live on in their memories, tainting their relationship. However, we have a big issue to overcome before we can bring such healthy practices into business.

Here’s the biggest problem with emotions in business: we don’t believe they should exist. We like to pretend they don’t exist, and if they flare up to the point they can’t be denied, they are to be eradicated. We can accept that they’re present in a fourth grade classroom but we discount them in an office building. In fact, it’s more acceptable in business to accuse someone of age discrimination than it is to admit you felt offended when they questioned your decision.

Accepting that we have emotions and taking responsibility for them isn’t about being soft or nice, but rather it’s about being clear. We carry them with us wherever we go, including the office, so let’s accept them and learn to use them wisely. In fact, emotions aren’t just a necessary evil in a team, but rather they are the primal factor influencing a team’s ability to thrive in today’s complex and demanding business environment.

As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, including research references, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.


About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a thought leader sharing ideas on how to create a more just and peaceful world. She is also a CIO, and in this role she has led large organizations with hundreds of employees through challenging times and major transformations.
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  1. Tammie  January 21, 2013

    I love this article can this be printed or emailed so I can share? Thanks!

  2. Jackie Barretta  January 21, 2013

    Tammie, I will send you an email version of it from MailChimp. That should be easy to do.

  3. Thomas V. Robertson, Ph.D.  February 10, 2013

    Jackie – good points about taking responsibility for your own emotions. I am happy to hear that fourth graders are learning about “I” statements – I didn’t get that until much later in life! The near-miraculous utility of owning my own “stuff” is one of the most valuable lessons life has taught me. Takes practice, though, and an environment where emotions are acknowledged as part of the mix, and we don’t, as you say, “pretend they don’t exist”. For me the hard part was acknowledging my own emotions without automatically banishing them, then finding productive ways to use what they are telling me in my interactions.

    When someone ticks me off, my reaction usually comes mostly from the story I invent about the situation, which may have little to do what the other person did or intended. I like Roger Schwartz’s suggestion in his Mutual Learning Approach (, to test observations and interpretations by asking “genuine questions”. For example “I hear you say you are against doing a demo. I suggested it because I want to use customer feedback to make the product better. What are your concerns?” Hopefully a conversation along these lines would leave me feeling heard and respected, no matter what the decision.

  4. Sandra Barnes  February 10, 2013

    Interesting yet familiar story – these M&S characters! 🙂 Sometimes, though, such disagreements need to be taken off-line and not dealt with during the group’s time? Being respectful of all emotions means that the two protagonists must also be respectful of the others around them as well, and address their issues one on one. Great advice, but having close contact with younger kids, they aren’t always adept at resolving their disagreements this way either – but its a great practice to aspire too none the less.


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