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  • Barbara Elggren

What Can Business Professionals Learn from Conflicts between Pro-Athletes?

Updated: Nov 24, 2021

Whether in person or at home, it’s easy to get caught up in the intensity of any sporting event. We can see the drama of professional sports play out in real-time. Social media gives us an up-close glimpse of the player rivalry and conflict, the media reports on it, and eventually, individuals publish memoirs or produce a biographical documentary.

Though the stress and conflict in our workspaces are not usually played out on a big screen or scrutinized on social media, this does not make workplace conflict any less significant. Whether in the workplace or in a sports arena, conflict has far-reaching consequences for individuals and teams. In its “Leadership Forum,” Forbes magazine describes what happens when conflict goes bad.

“Research shows that serious strife within teams takes a high toll. Among individuals, team discord leads to stress, low job satisfaction, poor productivity, anger, despair, and physical ailments such as insomnia. For teams, it can impair productivity, learning, collaboration, and even survival. Discord increases organizational costs when firms have to invest in coaching, performance management, conflict resolution, and mediation.”

Both pro athletes and business professionals depend on teams with relationships that share skills, knowledge, have good communication, and respect for all. When individuals work to create team synergy, they are creating efficiency, progress, and self-fulfillment.

But what can be gleaned from conflict in athletics or between athletes for us in our day-to-day professional operations?

The true mettle of a team is demonstrated when they know how to deal with the behaviors that violate expectations. Giving members of your team the tools to navigate conflict is essential. In your department pool, there may be a Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal relationship. Shaq thought Kobe was selfish and arrogant, and Bryant felt O'Neal was out of shape and a bad leader. Three NBA titles could not warm up their relationship and Shaq was traded to Miami. "Challenging" personalities on a team can complicate interactions creating a feud like Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent. Bonds and Kent's dislike for each other was an "open secret" for years. When, during a game, Kent appeared to be criticizing another player, Bonds intervened. The two began shoving each other, were pulled apart, and Kent was later traded to Houston. Even a Giants' World Series appearance did not keep Kent in San Francisco.

Effectively handling conflict requires a certain skill set. Leaders initiate crucial conversations involving standards and values that foster accountability and inclusivity. On the other hand, leaders put a stop to bullying, harassment, and discrimination. While team members have diverse backgrounds, they recognize that differences of opinion, respectful debate, and constructive conflict are healthy and can result in better team decisions. New ideas and input can lead to a win-win solution. When discussions get personal or negative they know when to stop.

Just as individuals can need help with personal relationships, teams can need help developing positive relations. Under stress, people often make rash judgments and assign blame. Professionally facilitated sessions can help air basic issues and help people learn to be better team members.

Ultimately conflict is inevitable in all of life’s arenas, but it does not have to define our teams. We can equip ourselves with the skill set necessary to navigate conflict and allow ourselves to achieve our winning potential.


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