How to Create Thriving Executive Teams that Handle Conflict Well

positive approach executive developmentWhen it comes to the top management in organizations, skepticism towards strengths-based leadership approaches is still common.

How can we encourage top hot shots to talk about their strengths, show appreciation, and create an environment where employees can truly flourish?

In this article, professional coach Silvia Schmuckli takes us through her experience in using positive psychology interventions to encourage a management team to bring their stinky fish to the table.


A Strength-Based Approach to Conflict Management

In 2016, Silvia Schmuckli, psychologist and professional coach with a practice in Berne (Switzerland), was approached by the CFO of an SME based in the microtechnology sector.

“We are a management team of five and we get along really well” he started off. “But whenever there is a difficult topic, we manage to beat around the bush and brush it under the carpet. Between the five of us, we have come to agree that we need to improve our conflict skills and learn how to grab the bull by the horns.”

Schmuckli arranged to meet with the five managers, and instead of preparing for a mediation session, she decided to try something different. It was apparent that the management team was ready to work on their conflict skills. After all, they had decided to tackle this issue during a time of strength rather than waiting before it became urgent.

Schmuckli proposed a strengths-based approach in the form of a set of workshops based on tools and ideas from the field of Positive Psychology.

By building on the team strengthsshe was hoping to identify what areas needed work, and reframe the team’s image of conflict which – not surprisingly – seemed to be negatively connoted. 


Skepticism Turned Into Excitement

“When I first met with the team for the initial briefing, I told them that I was a big fan of conflict” she recalls with a smile.

As expected the five men were rather irritated, so she explained how conflict often provides the potential for innovation and growth. Although the team who was initially skeptical at her enthusiasm for conflict, they were excited by the idea of working with their strengths rather than having to analyze their shortcomings.

Schmuckli suggested an initial workshop to define the goals of the coaching and understand the existing resources within the group that would help them achieve these goals. 


1st Workshop: Defining the Goals

The prospect of a workshop based on qualities and talents immediately created a comfortable and creative atmosphere. From the start, the five participants were able to completely engage in the workshop without hesitation or prejudice.

Firstly, Schmuckli used a technique known as appreciative inquiry to brainstorm possible goals. Questions like:

  1. What was good about their cooperation?
  2. What worked well in their organization?
  3. What has made them successful in the past?


They all agreed that they got along well, showed respect for each other, and were willing to work together. They also believed that they listened well to each other and were able to create a supportive work environment.

During the second part of the workshop, Schmuckli got them to verbalize what exactly it was they wanted to improve using the “miracle question,” commonly used in systemic therapy and positive CBT.

This revealed some personal hopes–such as being able to sleep better and feeling better about going to work in the morning.

“Realizing that there was a personal benefit to be gained and that they were all in the same boat was a defining moment in the process,” recalls Schmuckli.

The agreed upon goals at the end of the first workshop were; to face and benefit from conflict, to stay more focused, and to reduce conflicting claims to power.

After the first workshop, they had a shared understanding of where they were headed and the positive approach helped them realize how much was already working well.


2nd Workshop: Analyzing Their Strengths

The second workshop was designed to learn about strengths and values. The participants had filled out the Clifton Strengths Finder profile and taken the VIA survey prior to the workshop.

Now Schmuckli got them to think about how they used their strengths as resources in their job, and how the company, the employees, and their colleagues benefited when they used their strengths.

This exercise made them realize that if they all got to focus on what they did best, the potential they had as a team was exponential. Later in the process, this awareness was crucial because they realized that instead of amending their job descriptions (something they had planned to do), all they needed to do was let each other do what they did best and trust in each other’s capabilities. 


3rd Workshop: Presenting Their Strengths and Values

During the third workshop, they were asked to write down three core strengths or talents they perceived and appreciated in their colleagues.

Schmuckli insisted they give an example of when they saw these talents in action. This exercise created a lot of positive energy in the room. While one executive was giving an example of how the other uses a strength, the rest of the team would join in and add more examples.

“It was great to see the momentum this created in the group” Schmuckli recalls. “This shows how much fun it is to work with strengths!”

A summary of every executive’s resources and values was put on a large flip chart page so each person had their own page to reflect on. 

In the last part of the third workshop, each participant used these pages to present their resources to the team. Schmuckli highlights the positive atmosphere throughout the workshop and how keen they were to participate.

“They were so eager and excited to present their strengths to each other! This made the participants believe in their strengths and ready for the task ahead – learning how to tackle conflicts.”


4th Workshop: Positively Approaching Conflicts

Schmuckli believes that “[…] we cannot solely focus on the positive, that is not how the world works.” So during the fourth workshop, she had the participants analyze their conflict behavior and think about how this behavior impacted a conflict situation.

This exercise worked to create new awareness and understanding of their role in conflict situations.

Schmuckli also got them to brainstorm how they could possibly benefit from carrying out a conflict openly.
Having focused on their strengths and values in the previous workshops, this discussion made them realize that they had more to gain from conflicts than losing power.


5th Workshop: Tackling the Stinky Fish

Box of Stinky Fish
Tackling the Stinky Fish. Image by Pixaby.

In the fifth workshop, Schmuckli got the team to review what they had learned so far so they could learn to apply it to specific conflicts. 

During the discussion, one member compared the way they dealt with problems as a big bow wave in front of a large ship. This image spurred on a vivid discussion, and one member added that:

“our problems are like stinky fish, we try to avoid having to deal with them!”

This was a picture they all agreed on. So what could be a positive approach to dealing with stinky fish?

They decided that in the future they wanted to hold a fortnightly meeting, which they would call a fish market, a space to bring and discuss their stinky fish.

“Having this image of a fish market and stinky fish made it easier for them to deal with difficult issues and they were pleased to finally have a way of approaching difficult topics.” explains Schmuckli.

So after a few months, how is business going at the fish market?


Follow-Up on Creating Sustainable Change

They had agreed to have one more meeting to make sure that they could keep the momentum and implement what they had learned about dealing with conflict in order to create sustainable change.

However, when it came time to have that meeting, Schmuckli received a phone call from the CFO.

He explained that they wanted to postpone the meeting. “Everything is going so well at the moment,” he said, “we don’t even need a follow-up right now!”

Schmuckli was happy to hear that the team was going so well and that her effort paid off. And she is now curious to see where the team will be when they meet again.


The Strength-Based Approach to Coaching: Two Free PDF’s

If the positive approach coaching is in line with your goals and values, here is an introductory PDF which will provide you with a clear overview of the role of a strength-based approach in coaching.

If you are already an organizational coach, here is a PDF on Strength-Based Coaching for Managers


What Are The Success Factors When it Comes to Applying PP Tools in Business?

Schmuckli believes that building credibility and trust by providing information is vital.

“I started every workshop by giving a summary of the scientific findings behind the positive psychology interventions I was using” she says. “I provided facts and figures on the studies which took away the esoteric touch and made the interventions more acceptable for a business setting.”

Schmuckli believes that the positive approach had a great impact on the end result. It was important for the team to get to know each other as people, rather than in just their business roles.

“Using a positive approach made this a lot easier for them, as they felt pride about who they were and what they had to offer. Also, this way they got to know and appreciate each other on a deeper level. They were able to accept and even value what they initially did not like about each other. They realized that every personality trait has its value and that no talent is superior to another.”

Finally, Schmuckli concludes that the positive approach is more likely to foster humor which is crucial for success.


Who is Silvia Schmuckli?

silvia schmuckliSwitzerland-born Silvia Schmuckli originally qualified as a language teacher and worked in Switzerland and Japan before she decided to study psychology. Today, she is a qualified psychologist, professional coach, and mediator and a keen Positive Psychology practitioner with a practice in Berne, Switzerland.

Together with her business partner Christoph Dobler, she founded the Institute for Positive Leadership which aims to maximize the potential of Positive Psychology in organizations by bringing together science and business.

About the Author

Birgit Ohlin is a passionate Life Coach and Leadership Consultant who believes in the flow of life. This former Marketing Manager came across Positive Psychology during her Master’s degree and it had a profound effect on her. She since studied Coaching and has turned her focus to innovation, transformation and change.

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