By the time warring factions get to the executive ranks, they’ve already been routed through the normal HR channels, and one or more parties has a life coach or psychologist involved. Whether personality quirks or big egos cause the conflict really doesn’t matter if the problem continues to create havoc for your organization.
Conflict among senior leaders shuts down communication and harms the entire organization. When caught in the crossfire, the temptation is strong to stand clear to avoid getting trapped in the fallout. But as a leader, you’ll want to help minimize the grumbling, reduce the stress, and resolve the issue. Here’s what you can do:
Meet privately with both people involved. Side-step the temptation to take sides. Your goal is not to talk the opposition over to the other viewpoint. Ask how they view the conflict, and make sure that they both understand that what they share with you may not necessarily be withheld from the other person. You may need to use the information they share with you to clarify with the other person. If you don’t warn them upfront that you’ll be talking with the other person, they may think you’re “breaking their confidence.”
Interview others involved in the conflict to get all the facts. You may need unbiased versions of events and circumstances. Be careful, of course, that you don’t just collect the data that was passed on to them from the other people directly involved. Probe for their first-hand observations about the situation.
Lead each person to recall the best in the relationship. “Jim, Tony does respect your work. If you remember, last month he asked to be assigned to your group on the Rosco project.” The purpose is to help them recall times when things were working well between them (if that’s been the case.) Sharing positive remarks adds credibility to other things the person has to say about the current difficulty. If someone is willing to confirm the good, chances are that they’ll likely be a straight-shooter about the current problem.
Lead them to agree on common goals. “Carlos, you’ve been concerned with cost overruns in this department this year. Bev, you have the same worry—get back in the black.” They need constant reminders of the finish line. This step is particularly important if the conflicting has been ongoing for weeks or months.
Act as official mediator if the parties do not resolve the conflict on their own.
- State your conclusions about where you believe both have miscommunicated. Point out invalid assumptions and perceptions about each other’s intentions and actions.
- Downplay all efforts to fix blame. When a mediator is involved, the people in conflict have an added investment in maintaining their self-esteem. It’s bad enough to admit error or fault to one person; it’s doubly difficult to admit fault to two people—especially if one of them is your boss. So say it loudly, clearly, and frequently: “Conflict is inevitable. Let’s focus on working out a reasonable outcome for all of us.” And then make sure your attitude supports that premise. Check any cause-and-effect phrasing at the door.
- Ask the two people involved to suggest solutions. They’ll more likely follow through on their own ideas.
- Verify that the final resolution pleases both people—and is not a “win” for one and a “withdrawal” for the other.
Although such conflicts can be time-consuming, as the leader-mediator, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you’ve deactivated a potential productivity problem, plugged a morale leak, and kept the lines of communication open. And those are huge wins for an entire organization.