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How to be better at conflict.

A couple of weeks ago I arrived at a client’s office and this normally calm, grounded CEO declared: “I really need your help with a people issue that’s bothering me.” This was quite unusual for himhe’s incredibly competent, the company is flying high, and he’s well-regarded on Wall Street, so you’d also imagine that his top team is working well together to drive this kind of high performance.

As I listened, he described a conflict where one of his most trusted team members (let’s call him Harry) shared some “shadow feedback”[1]that he had heard from a teammate (let’s call her Maura).

Harry was, in effect, delivering Maura’s message that she is in conflict with a member of the executive team. Maura was hoping that Harry could deliver her message to my client, her boss. The details had all the hallmarks of a complex conflict, with lots of passive-aggressive behavior and strong emotions, all of which had been simmering for quite some time. When I asked my client some typical coaching questions, he simply responded: “I’m so mad, the only thing I’ve tried is to not fire someone.”

Now, being mad, while completely understandable, is not one of the Ten Practices I encourage my clients to demonstrate as they work to address a conflict!

Conflict is Complex 

Using my Ten Practices as my guide, I began to more fully explore this situation with him. My client quickly realized it was much more complex than it first appeared:

    • The conflict was brought to his attention through shadow feedback. This is common and very challenging to address. It’s not unusual for people to talk around a conflict instead of directly addressing it.
    • Some of what Harry reported to the CEO, when scrutinized, did not add up. This is not unusual; in a conflict situation, the truth is almost always the first victim.
    • The conflict involved a trusted team member (let’s call him Tony). But when we dug a little deeper, it became clear that Tony had his own agendahe really doesn’t care for Maura. This led us to wonder about Tony’s motives. Does this sound complicated? It’s not unusual to have power dynamics, politics, and leaders “taking sides” in a conflict situation.
    • Additionally, Tony disclosed a fact to my client that would have a material impact on business performance—something the people closest to that fact should have disclosed directly to the CEO.
    • It is no surprise that my client was angry. Conflict is always accompanied by strong emotion. This kind of emotional triggering is also correlated with disappearing IQ points and a correspondingly diminished capacity to resolve conflict.

As we worked through the issue to expand his awareness of the situation, my client repeatedly stated that this issue was taking up a whole lot of his energy. He also disclosed that, as someone who was even-tempered, he wasn’t very good at conflict.

Two Types of Conflict 

Before sharing my Ten Practices, I need to make an important distinction. As long as humans are involved in organizations, there will be conflict. Great team members challenge each other’s thinking and the status quo. This is normal and healthy. These kinds of challenges often produce a conflict based on ideas, approaches, and perspectives. This is distinct from unproductive and destructive conflictthe focus of this article.

Conflict where disagreement persists and remains unresolved will produce an unhealthy, negative team and/or organizational dynamic. This kind of conflict is often accompanied by strong emotion and evidence that the parties have “dug in.” Team members will often suggest there is a clash of personalities that extends beyond any difference in ideas or thinking. This kind of conflict tests even the most accomplished c-suite leader. My experience would suggest that you will have to address at least one unproductive conflict in every calendar year. For a CEO, conflict can become a significant distraction. 

Conflict Competency

At one point, much earlier in my coaching career, I thought I might want to do more conflict-resolution work. It felt like really noble work to want to mend broken work relationships. After working with several situations where executives were in conflict, however, I decided that it was really challenging workwith a low success rate. There are too many variables at play. This is why I came up with the Ten Practices.

As I’ve now been coaching c-suite leaders for fifteen years, I can confirm that it’s difficult to assess a leader’s skill level and proficiency with conflict resolution. This skillset is usually far down on the list of requirements to become a CEO or advance to the c-suite. It’s often assumed that, if you make it to the c-suite, you will have good skills for managing conflict. That’s not always the case and, since it’s a skillset that’s way down on the list of requirements, it doesn’t always get the attention it warrants. In my experience, underdeveloped conflict competency can create some significant challenges for a CEO and her/his organization. Unresolved conflict can consume a lot of time and energy, so the Ten Practices are designed to more quickly address, and hopefully resolve, conflict.

I designed the Ten Practices to be a practical framework for developing greater skill. They are not meant to be exhaustive, and I’d love your responses in the comments if you have a practice that you’d add to the list.

Managing Conflict: The Ten Practices

Let’s be clearthere are very few of us who relish the prospect of a good conflict! On the contrary, most of us (like my client) will go to great lengths to avoid conflict. My experience with conflict in the c-suite is that it often has far-reaching negative impact. These practices will help you more fully understand and manage a confliction situation.

First, let’s address some common assumptions about conflict. The CEOs I’ve worked with often assume that:

    • Conflicts will resolve with timethey don’t.
    • C-suite executives can resolve conflict on their ownthey often can’t.
    • If you intentionally create conflict, you’ll have higher performance—but deliberately created conflict does not drive performance. It creates competition instead of cooperation.
    • You should get rid of the one person who is causing the conflict—but it’s never just one person.

These assumptions create some blind spots. If you are a CEO or c-suite executive who wants to become more conflict-competent, here are the practices I recommend.

  • Listen. Have the ears of a rabbit. This sounds generic and obvious, but, so often, individuals in conflict do not feel heard. This is an opportunity to sit with each leader and listen intently and deeply. Demonstrate what Stephen Covey calls “Level 5 listening,” where you are fully empathic and seeing the conflict from each team member’s point of view. Deep listening also provides you with much more than a superficial insight into the conflict. Deep listening expands the range of options you can identify for managing that conflict.
  • Act Quickly. The longer a conflict exists, the more likely that conflict will become toxic and destructive. When you become aware of a conflict, resolve to address it directly and quickly. Give yourself a time limit and communicate that time limit to the parties in conflict. There are times when HR will advise that you put an employee on a plan to address the conflict. Acting swiftly is important to minimize the impact of the conflict.
  • Pinpoint Sources. If you listen carefully, you can identify the real sources of a conflict. My experience is that conflict is often a product of:
    • Stress
    • Differences in work style
    • Conflicting objectives
    • Poor communication and lack of information
    • Unexpressed or unmet needs
    • Different personal values
    • Assumptions
    • Differences in perception
    • Lack of structural and/or role clarity
  • Declare Expectations. Conflict is often observed in aggressive, passive, or passive-aggressive behavior. In addressing conflict, be clear about what behavior you expect and what you deem unacceptable. Ground your expectations in the company’s values. Make sure the team members understand that they share collective responsibility for behavior and collective results. Finally, make your “ask” of the parties in conflict very clear (e.g. “I need you to stop sending accusatory emails”) and state the consequences of not demonstrating change.
  • Gauge Trust. Some conflicts devolve into personal conflict, where the individuals lose their trust for each other. They may respect each other’s experience, but they don’t trust the other leader’s motives or intentions. Most trust-based conflict originates in poor communication, where the outcome is that one party feels disrespected. This kind of conflict is very difficult to resolve. In this scenario, bring in a professional mediator who can work with the absence of personal trust. My experience is that this is more about “keeping the peace” in the short term, to allow space for the broader resolution to unfold. On rare occasions, mediation can fully resolve a conflict based on personal mistrust. However, this kind of conflict is often only resolved by the voluntary or involuntary departure of one (or both) of the team members.
  • Evaluate Ego. All of us have an ego which is connected to our sense of self-importance. Leaders who are “high ego” often overestimate their importance and that translates into a power play (more on this later). Learn to read your peopledo they have low, high, or mature egos? Resolve to remind leaders that one team member is not more important than any other team member. Notice if a team member defines success in personal terms and remind them that success is a collective endeavor.
  • Address Anger. Conflict is often accompanied by anger, frustration, and irritation. When conflict gets very heated, the people in conflict tend to lose a lot of IQ points. When anger is expressed very directly, it leaves a stubborn residue of resentment and/or shame. Neuroscience would suggest that when a conversation gets too heated, it’s a good practice to call a time-out. Sometimes your instinct might be to step back from the anger or stay in the conversation because you want an issue resolved in a timely fashion. The right conversation about a conflict, held when people are extremely angry, is actually the wrong conversation. Set an expectation that conflict conversations are paused when anger is surfaced in an unproductive manner. For extra points, notice your own comfort level with anger and how it impacts your capacity to navigate conflict. Your ability to stay present and provide “psychological safety” for team members is, according to research, a game-changer.
  • Pause Power Plays. These are scenarios where one person believes they have an advantage over the other. This might or might not be the case. “Flat” organizational structures are particularly susceptible to power-based conflict. Leaders will try to use a conflict to maintain or reinforce their power or status. In this instance, you need to remind both leaders that they are of equal importance to the organization. Alternatively, you might need to remind one of the leaders that they should not abuse the authority of their position. It helps to remind team members that success is truly collective.
  • Honor Hunches. You did not get to the c-suite without following your hunches. When you observe a conflict, pay attention to your huncheswrite them down. Notice how you might try to talk yourself out of your hunches and resist. Hunches are pure gold—and it’s important to understand your own “hot buttons” for conflict. This will allow you to remain a neutral party in resolving conflict.
  • Utilize Models and Tools. There are some well-accepted models for resolving conflict: VOMP, interest-based relational approach, Way of Council, the TKI, CINERGY Model, Conflict Dynamics Profile, etc. Make sure you are familiar with one or more of these frameworks/assessments/approaches.

Conclusion

Navigating and managing conflict are key c-suite skills. Addressing conflict also provides an opportunity for an executive to show her or his character. It is one thing to use the practices provided above to address conflict. It is another, deeper thing to approach the conflict with self-awareness, compassion, and caring. This is the “tough work” of leadership, where you are expected to model appropriate behavior and inject heart into a challenging set of circumstances. Bringing compassion into challenging situations is surprisingly helpful when working to help two leaders resolve their conflict. Don’t be surprised if you have to dig deep and grow yourself!

[1]Shadow feedback is when someone tells you something that someone else was unwilling to tell you.

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