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Team building learning exercise

Brain circuits

How to boost your team’s immunity to conflict 

Published 19 March 2021 in Brain circuits • 2 min read

Destructive conflict is often rooted in perceived incompatibilities between team members. By being proactive and surfacing these upfront, when the pressure is off, managers can inoculate teams against future blow-ups.  

Why do we care? 

Most teams take a reactive approach to conflict by trying to improve team members’ capabilities to respond to clashes. These approaches often allow frustrations to build up for too long, making it difficult to reset negative impressions.  
But what if you tried to immunize colleagues against the negative impact of differences at a very early stage in the team’s existence? The skills needed to facilitate such proactive discussions are far easier to master than those required for conflict resolution. 

A simple tool can help structure open conversations around five domains – along with five sets of questions designed to surface key differences that disrupt team functioning. The approach empowers managers to facilitate team discussions before the differences between colleagues have had a chance to trigger strong emotions or animosity. 

An exercise to rethink conflict 

One important conversation you should have with your team circles around the question: “what makes a good impression?” By this, we mean how people look, and how we all judge each other for it. After all, we all present ourselves differently.  

To get your team questioning the judgements they likely make upon minimal exposure to others, ask them to answer these questions: 

  1. your world… what makes a good first impression? And a bad one
  2. What do you notice first about others (dress, speech, demeanor)?
  3. What does that make you think about them (rigid, pushy, lazy)?
  4. What intangible credentials do you value (education, experience)?
  5. How do you perceive status differences?

Remember to ask yourself these questions too. 

Include everyone on the team and explain why you’re initiating the discussions. You might say something like: 

Working on a team means collaborating with people whose approaches may differ from your own. Let’s explore these differences now, while the pressure is off, so that they don’t catch us by surprise and generate unproductive conflict at an inopportune moment.

Explain that the focus of the discussions will be on the process of work rather than the content.

Here are other conversations to have, that will help you prevent team conflict.



Ginka Toegel - IMD Professor

Ginka Toegel

Professor of Organizational Behavior and Leadership at IMD

Ginka Toegel is a teacher, facilitator, and researcher in the areas of leadership and human behavior. Specialized in providing one-to-one leadership coaching and team-building workshops to top management teams in both the public and private sector, her major research focuses on leadership development, team dynamics, and coaching. She is also Director of the Strategies for Leadership program and the Mobilizing People program.

Jean-Louis Barsoux - IMD Professor

Jean-Louis Barsoux

Research Professor at IMD

Jean-Louis Barsoux helps organizations, teams, and individuals change and reinvent themselves. He was educated in France and the UK, and holds a PhD in comparative management from Loughborough University in England. His doctorate provided the foundation for the book French Management: Elitism in Action (with Peter Lawrence) and a Harvard Business Review article entitled The Making of French Managers.


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