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Team Conflict: The Good, the Bad and The Ugly

November 20th, 2017

By: Karen Colligan


Conflict on teams is inevitable. Yet when managed effectively, it can actually be a good thing. New ideas are born; relationships are deepened through the airing and resolution of differences; teams grow stronger. When you are a leader in the midst of conflict, however, and attempting to deal with it while juggling everything else, it can be a bit overwhelming.

Here are 5 tips for managing team conflict effectively.

Be self-aware. Understanding your leadership strengths and how you react under stress is essential to handling conflict in a constructive manner. Often our positive traits can be perceived as negative when we are overextended. For example, if you tend to set the bar high for yourself and others, this may be perceived as an unreasonable demand for perfection by a team that is struggling with workload or other internal issues. If your strength is leading through people, when stressed you may spend too much time trying to make sure everyone is happy rather than focusing on the collective team goals.
Know your team. The best teams bring diverse personalities, skills and experience to the table. Recognizing the value each individual’s skills and traits contribute to the team and how they complement (and potentially conflict with) each other will help you lay the groundwork for effective conflict resolution. Build team awareness and appreciation of different styles, and provide opportunities for productive interactions and mutual understanding.
Make the time to just listen. When a deadline is looming, and the team can’t seem to get past a conflict barrier, you may be tempted, as the leader, to force an end to the issue and just push your position through. Don’t. Make time to listen to all sides so you can get to the core of the issue and help the team develop a solution.
Harness the power of diverse thinking. Create an environment that encourages open communication and fresh ideas and approaches. Reach out to those who are less vocal to ensure that their ideas get added to the mix. When everyone feels heard and appreciated, “conflicts” become productive discussions.
Chart the way forward. Embrace the “lessons learned” from the bumps on the journey, refocus on the goals and move forward.

Want to learn more about your leadership style and the styles of your team for more effective conflict resolution? Contact me at kcolligan@PeopleThink.biz.

Till next time,


Communication, conflict resolution, Leadership, Teams

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Leading Virtual Teams – Tips for Success

November 8th, 2017

By: Karen Colligan


If you’re a leader, chances are that at least a portion of your team is working remotely, or for that matter, in another part of the world. Increased globalization and advances in technology have changed the way we work, with some teams never actually being in the same room together. While virtual teams have many benefits – an expanded talent pool, reduced office space requirements, the ability for employees to work from anywhere – they are not without their challenges. Especially for leaders.

A 2016 study by RW3, LLC, a cultural training service, Trends in Global Virtual Teams, found that some of the biggest challenges for global teams were: colleagues who do not participate, pace of decision making, and different role expectations held by team members. The study also found that the biggest challenge to productivity was the lack of face-to-face communication, which respondents said impacted managing conflict, establishing trust and building relationships. All important components for team success.

Leading virtual teams, especially global teams, requires an additional set of leadership skills. Yet few leaders receive training that specifically prepares them for this role. According to the RW3 study, while 74% of respondents had received formal leadership training, only 34% had received global leadership training. Likewise, although 85% of respondents said they work on virtual teams, only 22% said they had received training to increase their productivity on virtual teams. Clearly, there’s a development opportunity here.

In the meantime, here are some tips for leading virtual teams effectively.

Be engaged and available. Team members working from a distance, whether it’s in a home office in the US or from a global location, can feel isolated. Engage with individual team members on a regular basis to ask how things are going and to provide support. Be available to them when they have concerns, ideas, or just need to talk.

Leverage video technology. Use videoconferencing, Skype or any other tools available to you to allow team members to see each other. This is especially important when the team is forming, and when critical issues and/or decisions need to be discussed. Also consider having a team site where members names, locations, role and images are posted.

Create ground rules for virtual meetings. In our ever-connected, multi-tasking world it’s hard to keep people focused on one task, especially if they’re out of sight. Agree on ground rules up front, such as “cell phones off,” “one person speaks at a time,” etc. Distribute the agenda prior to the meeting and send out a recap afterward. Factor some time into each meeting for team members to have open discussion and to get to know each other better.

Establish communication guidelines. Create a process for regular communication, expected response time, and how issues will be prioritized. Encourage team members to use video or phone calls to work out issues or when information may need clarification. Remember, email is one-way communication. Picking up the phone (or Skype!) can go a long way in building trust and developing relationships.

Respect and rotate time zones. Be sure that everyone knows where their team members are located and their respective time zones. Establish a “best time to call” list for intra-team communications. Rotate time zones for team meetings so one person isn’t always the early-riser or later-worker.

Practice cultural sensitivity. Minimize misunderstandings by providing cultural training to all team members. Create a team environment that welcomes diversity of thought, backgrounds, experience and communication style. Provide opportunities for team members to educate each other about cultural nuances.

"Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success." – Henry Ford

Till next time,

Communication, Leadership, Teams, Virtual teams

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Just Because We Don’t Agree, Doesn’t Mean You’re Wrong

September 1st, 2017

By: Karen Colligan


There’s a cartoon about perception that I use in one of my leadership development workshops. It has two men standing at opposite ends of a number – one at the top, and one at the bottom. One man points to the number says “six.” The other man points to the number and says, “nine.” Who’s right?

It’s all a matter of perspective.

Think about the last time you had a heated discussion with someone. (Given our current political climate, this shouldn’t be much of a stretch. Hence the reason I’m covering this topic!) Did you stay firmly rooted on your side “of the number,” or did you pause to walk around to the other side to try to look at it a bit differently? It’s hard, I know. We each live in a world of beliefs we’ve developed based on what we’ve observed, learned and experienced over our lifetime. Yet it’s worth the effort.

In his book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Peter Senge talks about the Ladder of Inference, which describes the thinking process we go through – usually subconsciously - to get from a fact to a decision or action. Visualize a ladder. Starting with reality and facts at the bottom of the ladder and then moving upward, we:
• Select from the facts based on our beliefs and prior experience
• Interpret what they mean
• Apply our existing assumptions, sometimes without validating them
• Draw conclusions based on how we interpreted the facts and our assumptions
• Develop beliefs based on our conclusions
• Take actions and form opinions that seem “right’ because they are based on what we believe

When we do this on a regular basis, we become so stuck in our thinking that we find it nearly impossible to consider a new, different or more collaborative way of looking at things.

I’d like to suggest that in the interest of more effective dialogues, better relationships and enhanced personal wellness, we all make the effort to get unstuck. All too often conversations are shut down because opinions vary, and no one wants to risk their stance by probing for a deeper understanding of someone else’s.

Here’s what you can do. Stop. Look. Listen.

Stop. Before you go scrambling up your perception ladder, stop for a minute to evaluate your thought process. Do you have all the facts? Is their source reliable? Are you making assumptions about the facts – or the other person – without validating them?

Look. Look for opportunities to learn about views different from your own. Observe different approaches to doing things. Even simple things, like making coffee, writing a report, conducting a meeting, painting a room. Being open to diverse opinions and approaches helps us understand that different is not necessarily wrong.

Listen. Turn down the heat when opinions differ by expressing an interest in why the other person believes as they do. Ask the question and then really listen to the answer. Be open to looking at the issue slightly differently once you’ve heard the reasoning behind their point of view.

The experience may change your opinion, or not. Or it may strengthen and validate it. Either way, you will have learned something.

“What you see depends not only on what you look at, but where you look from.” – James Deacon

Communication, conflict resolution, Life, wellness


As a speaker and facilitator, I need to be able to think on my feet. You just never know when a question or comment or situation will pop up out of the blue and require a speedy response. Some years ago, I took an Improv class for the purpose of honing that skill. And just recently, I took another one - at BATS Improv (Bay Area Theater Sports) in San Francisco – to refresh it. Not only was it a lot of fun and personally rewarding, it got me thinking. The principles of improv can benefit everyone. In business and in life.

And guess what? I’m apparently not the only one who thinks this! Some top tier business schools are now teaching improv classes in their MBA programs, including Duke, MIT, UCLA, and Stanford. A Fast Company article explained why:

“The underlying axiom is that curveballs don’t just happen on stage at improv classes; they also happen in the ever-changing business world. When you’re on stage, unsure of what will happen, and are forced to go along with whatever suggestion your fellow actors offer with a “yes, and…” response that means you’re always accepting–and building upon–whatever others are doing or saying as part of your own storyline. This kind of cooperation is said to inspire adaptability, which becomes a particularly useful skill to have in the current global business landscape.”

Here are some improv principles that we can all apply.

Yes, and… Saying “yes, and…” as opposed to “yes, but…” can make a big difference in one-on-one conversations, brainstorming sessions, performance reviews, talks with your teenager, self-talk, you name it. Think about it. When someone is speaking to you and says “but” in the middle of the sentence, do you remember anything before the “but”? No matter how sweetly the sentence begins, a “but” in the middle signals negative territory ahead.

Listen. In improv, listening effectively is essential. Other actors may be setting a scene or giving you characteristics (addressing you as “your highness” for example) that you’ll miss if you’re talking or not paying attention. Listen so you can respond appropriately. Same goes for meetings, relationships, etc.

Make your partner look good. Improv is a team sport. It’s not about upstaging others so you can shine. It’s about working together to create a scene that entertains the audience. Most of our work today is done in teams or in collaboration with another. “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” – Harry Truman

Embrace mistakes. One of the refreshing and fear-fighting things about being on stage in improv is that mistakes are OK. In fact, often it’s the mistakes that get the biggest laughs from the audience. You fall, you dust yourself off, and you keep going. Just as we need to in life.

Give it 100%. Improv is less about being a good actor and more about jumping 100% into whatever role or situation you’re given.  If you believe, the audience will believe. How much better would we all be if we gave 100% to every endeavor, every assignment, every relationship?

Do something. Here’s where the thinking-on-your-feet comes in. Someone knocks on the (imaginary) door, answer it. Someone throws you a line, respond to it. Think how this applies to life. Every day we have opportunities and possibilities. Don’t just stand there, do something!

Till next time,


Communication, Life, Personal development


Leading to a Great Company Culture

April 24th, 2017

By: Karen Colligan

We hear a lot about the importance of company culture and its role in attracting, engaging and retaining employees. But what is company culture, and how do you go about creating a “best-place-to-work” caliber of culture when there’s so much other stuff to get done?

First of all, a great culture is more than fun after-work events, casual dress, and catchy slogans. It’s how employees, customers and the outside world perceive an organization based on its attitudes and behaviors. I can’t imagine that many of us perceive the skies to be as “friendly” after that paying customer was dragged from his seat recently on a United flight from Chicago to Louisville. If that’s how they treat customers, how do they treat their employees?

Culture is synonymous with behavior. And it stems from leadership behavior at all organizational levels.

To build a great culture, start by becoming really clear about who you are as a leader. I call this “developing your leadership mantra,” which I wrote about in a previous blog.

Once you’ve done this, the next steps are:
Be sure that everyone understands the Vision and Mission of the organization. Define them. Communicate them. Post them. Refer to them in employee meetings and other communications.

Establish and communicate clear Values. Model them with employees, customers, vendors, job candidates, everyone. Recognize employees who go above and beyond to model the values.

Ensure that expected leadership behaviors at all levels align with the Vision, Mission and Values. Coach leaders who do not meet these expectations.

Develop and communicate a clear and consistent definition of the culture. Make it easy to describe. Make it real. Test the definition with employees, with customers.

Recruit and hire great people who fit the culture. Use your tested definition in job postings and interviews. As part of your hiring process, determine what a “fit” is, and what it isn’t. Train hiring managers, and develop behavioral interview questions that will help determine fit.

Ask for feedback and adjust accordingly. Once you feel you’ve developed a great culture it’s easy to get complacent. But workplace cultures can shift – changes in leadership, business downturn, overly rapid growth, or external pressures, etc. Do a periodic check-up to ensure that all parts of your culture are healthy and if not, review, adjust and get back on track.

How would you currently rate your company culture? Here’s an idea: Interview a cross-section of your employees and see whether they all describe it the same. If not, go back to the steps above.

Till next time,


company culture, Engagement, Leadership

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Start the Conversation and Unleash the Possibilities

February 22nd, 2017

By: Karen Colligan

George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion it has taken place.”

Most of us are familiar with the techniques that help with effective communication – active listening, not interrupting, clarifying questions, paraphrasing, withholding judgment, etc. These all contribute (when you remember to use them) to effective communication, defined as when the sender and receiver of information interpret that information in the same way.

I think, however, that in today’s environment we’re really struggling with that last part. Too often conversations turn into interpreting information “my way” instead of listening to the other person and trying to find common ground. And some conversations, especially if they’re about current events, can’t even get started. I have a friend who cannot even broach the subject of current events with one of her family members because they are on opposite poles of the political spectrum. He just shuts her down. I’ve heard other similar examples. Some have completely ended relationships.

Is this really the way we want to live? In this Year of Possibilities, how about the possibility that we might learn something from listening and trying to understand someone else’s point of view. Why do they think that? What are their hopes and fears? What are the outcomes they’d like to see? I think we might find that what we want is similar, but the approach may be different. If we can’t listen or if we aren’t allowed to speak, how do we find out what we have in common so we can move forward in a more civilized way?

There was an article in the Huffington Post recently that I think expressed this really well. The author, a professor at Oregon State University, grew up in a conservative, working class family, but became more progressive over the years. She writes directly to people in communities like the one she grew up in and asks, “are you willing to have the conversation? Is it more important to you to win than to do good? Or can we build coalitions? Put the needs and rights of all others above ideologies?”

Just think how much more we will learn from listening and being curious rather than from telling and needing to be right. Just think of the possibilities…

“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” – Dalai Lama

Till next time,


Communication, conflict resolution, Relationships

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