The majority of leaders we work with realize managing conflict is critically important and necessary to innovate, make good decisions, effectively solve problems and be high performing. Intellectually, they know: 

  • It is in their teams’, the company’s and their best interest when they are open feedback.
  • They need to be open to feedback in order to invite others to give it. 
  • The more candid people are with them, the more successful they, their teams and the Enterprise will be. 
  • Feedback requires both parties to step out of their comfort zones: it is sometimes just as (if not harder for) the provider to give the feedback as it is for the receiver to hear it.

Despite knowing this, it is rare for leaders to embrace conflict. There are two kinds of conflict in organizations, which you can read about in Managing Conflict Part 1: What Conflict is and why to Avoid it. One is regarding business issues and the second is regarding interpersonal issues.  Very few leaders take the risk of talking straight and sending the real messages people need to hear because they are afraid of how they and/or the other person will react. (Read about the brain science that drives how we engage in conflict here). 

Most leaders are afraid of others getting defensive or angry, justifying, rationalizing, blaming, or retaliating with feedback of their own. They are afraid of harming themselves, the other and the relationship, which is ironically what they do by not engaging.

The vicious cycle of avoidance and resentment occurs: I have feedback for you. You tend to get defensive. I avoid addressing it directly and then I collude, enable, resent and talk to others about you. This cycle only perpetuates conflict which can significantly undermine team success.  

3 Levels of Conflict

Most teams that do not engage in high performance development often avoid conflict, triangulate (talking to someone else instead of going directly to the person they’re having the issue with) or engage mainly at Level 1 below. The three levels of Conflict below are the areas where high performing, inclusive team leaders consistently engage to ensure alignment and high performance.

Level 1: Business issues. These are the most “user-friendly” issues to address: they are business-based, necessary and “easiest” to discuss. This is a laudable first step that can dramatically increase collaboration and business results, and yet it is often uni-dimensional and does not unlock the full potential of the team when members solely engage at this level. Most teams that handle conflict stop at this level.

Level 2: Functional team members. When team members offer feedback to each other about members on their functional teams. Any team that wants to be high performing needs to have the right people in the right seats, which is rarely the case. In traditional companies, most team members feel awkward or believe it’s “not their place, or they don’t have license or responsibility.” They withhold input, judge their peers and “hope” their peers will fix the situation on their own. High performance leaders engage directly, partner and offer help to peers to address challenges, repair trust and handle cross-functional breakdowns.

Level 3: Interpersonal issues. This level is true high performance: peers provide feedback, observations and share perceptions they have of one another. They discuss what they are doing that gets in the way and make requests of each other for how they could both partner more effectively. They offer insights and input and help each other. They do this because it will help each other, the team and the Enterprise be successful. Most team members in traditional teams assume it is the leader’s responsibility to give members feedback and hold them accountable. In high performance teams, peers see this as their job. 

One of the biggest things that gets in the way of operating effectively at all three levels is when members personalize: they get defensive, resistant, difficult and ultimately occur as uncoachable. Depersonalizing is key to interrupting this cycle. 

Why Depersonalizing Matters

When leaders personalize, they almost stop being open or listening. When that occurs, it makes others have to work hard, jump through hoops and step out of their own comfort zones to speak their truth. 

In Google’s famous Aristotle study where they studied 180 teams and identified 5 key norms for successful teams, the most important norm was psychological safety. They found that when teams had psychologically safe environments, employees were less likely to leave, more likely to harness the power of diversity, and ultimately, were more successful. 

Psychological safety is defined as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career.” In other words, if I have feedback for you and you take it personally, it will reduce my psychological safety in coming to you, which will increase the likelihood that I will avoid you and that we will not perform effectively together. 

In order for teams to create psychological safety, members need to depersonalize. If I can say anything to you and you will listen and be curious, open and receptive, there is a higher likelihood that I will come to you, tell you the truth and have us find a solution together. You have to depersonalize to be open; otherwise, you will take feedback personally and feel attacked, judged or criticized.

What is Depersonalizing?

To personalize means to make personal about an individual or to customize. To depersonalize is to make impersonal or to deprive the sense of personal identity. When we talk about depersonalizing with teams, it often elicits debate and initial disagreement. We often hear questions such as “How could feedback NOT be personal? How could I hear something and NOT have it be about me?

Therein lies the breakthrough. It starts with mindset. Team members who are good at depersonalizing often believe feedback is:

  • A gift 
  • Something that helps them AND the company succeed
  • Necessary to increase performance and collaboration
  • “About me and not about me” 

Depersonalizing requires the mindset of the bigger picture, focused on the relationship, team or greater Enterprise being successful. 

Leaders who focus on the Enterprise – the reason we are here – are able to depersonalize more easily. 

When leaders have the mindset that it’s about the organization being successful, they can be open, curious and listen because they realize it’s about them on behalf of the Enterprise instead of only about them. 

Those who are focused on their individual or functional goals tend to personalize more and be less “user-friendly.” 

Members’ ability to depersonalize is a direct correlation to the level of Trust in the team.

The higher the trust, the more easily members will interpret feedback with positive intent. If there is low trust, members will not feel as safe to engage authentically or be vulnerable. To learn more about how to Build and Sustain Trust, click here and to assess the level of Trust in your team with a diagnostic tool, click here.

What Personalizing and Depersonalizing Look Like

Someone will bring up something – feedback for you, input on your project, a difficult situation with one of your team members. 

When you are personalizing: You take the input personally, you feel attacked, criticized, judged and you are defending, justifying, protecting, explaining, fighting or withdrawing. 

When you are depersonalizing: You feel the sting of the comments and initially feel hurt, insulted, mad. You take a deep breath and focus on the bigger picture, remembering this is not an attack about how good of a person you are, this is about helping and focusing on what’s best for the Enterprise, and the long-term success of yourself, your direct, your team, etc. You stay calm, objective, open and vulnerable. You listen at levels 2 and 3 and ask questions to clarify, not interrogate. You ask for help or Coaching. You thank the person because they are courageously demonstrating care and building trust

3 Keys to Depersonalizing

There are 3 key areas to focus upon to depersonalize: 

  1. MINDSET: The lens through which you look is 90% of what will allow you to successfully depersonalize. You know there is valuable input for you and it doesn’t mean you’re incompetent. You can blame someone for their input or thank them for their insights. You can focus on yourself, or work on behalf of the Enterprise. You can feel attacked or prioritize collaboration. You can feel alone or supported. You can feel embarrassed or role model vulnerability. You can feel disconnected or see this as an opportunity to build trust. Every thought you have will ultimately guide your choice of how to respond.
  2. TOOLSET: The most important tool to engage productively versus react defensively is breathing. It sounds woo-woo, possibly unhelpful and too easy. And yet, when your brain gets triggered and you immediately go to fight or flight, the thinking part of your brain literally shuts down, which is when you say things you regret, forget what matters most and personalize. To access your best self, you must stay present and grounded. The fastest way to do that is to pause and to breathe deeply (ideally in through your nose and out through your mouth). No kidding – within less than 60 seconds you can bring back 80% of your rational mind. Deep breathing is simple yet not easy when you get triggered. Consistently practicing it when you are not being tested is a good way to prepare for when you need it.
  3. SKILLSET: Bottom line: listen and ask questions. Take a breath and say what you hear: “so I hear you’re feeling micromanaged” and listen! If necessary, ask a (neutral) question. “Can you say more about that? Can you tell me about the impact on you? If this were different, what would change?” It is easy when triggered to ask questions that are dripping in defensiveness and disagreement: “Don’t you think….Can you give me an example that shows that…Why didn’t you tell me earlier?Most important is to listen to fully understand them (their point of view, needs, and impact) before making it about you. 

Ask Yourself:

  • If I asked the 5 most important people around me how I usually respond or how safe it feels to come to me, what would I hear? (kids will be your most honest assessors, by the way)
  • If I were to practice 1 thing that would make a difference in my ability to depersonalize, what would that be?
  • Do I want to be right or have the (fill-in-the-blank: relationship, success, etc)? 

Please feel free to reach out to Gisele Garcia Shelley if you’d like to connect about how to apply these learnings, to help members on your team navigate these conversations, or to discuss the biggest current challenge you are facing today.

Wishing you good mental, physical, emotional and social health. 

Remember to find resources to inspire you here.

Yours in practice,



If you are interested in exploring how to unlock the potential of yourself, your team or the women in your organization , contact us for a complimentary discovery conversation.

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