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Untangling The Differences

When leaders go head-to-head, creative interventions can unlock conflict.

We’ve all seen this before. Two leaders in an organization don’t get along, they can’t seem to communicate, and they appear to be in constant conflict.

Ongoing conflict in any organization is corrosive to culture and to productivity. The organization must step in and consequences for success or failure need to be identified and implemented.

That’s how an organization shows it is serious about the need for its leaders to resolve conflict.

Most of the time two individuals can work out their differences. That’s always the best solution.

But what if they can’t? Sometimes a conflict has become so entrenched, and those involved are so unable or unwilling to resolve problems between them it begins to affect their work.

Worse yet, it starts to affect people around them. Colleagues tiptoe around the conflict and their teams may follow their example and stop collaborating.

If conflict between two leaders gets to this point, it’s time for the organization to intervene for the good of the entire company

Our leadership development firm has seen conflicts like these many times over the past 17 years.

We’ve learned that a successful intervention has to have four key elements.

No. 1 - Involve the Boss

At our firm ( we involve the supervisor from beginning to end. We want to know what specific issues caused conflict between these leaders. We ask the boss to describe and quantify the impact of the conflict on the organization. Then we identify consequences: How will these leaders be rewarded when their relationship improves? What happens if conflict isn’t resolved?

No. 2 - Engage in Mutual Problem-Solving and Goal Setting

When two leaders are engaged in conflict together, they need to work their way out of it together. At our firm we facilitate a conversation with them to identify a shared goal for improving their relationship. But each person still has to create a personal goal to change their behavior and reduce conflict.

Why get an outside firm involved? A third-party provides structure and they can help work through sticking points that can be harder to do from the inside of the organization.

No. 3 - Have Regular One-to-One Feedback ‘Check-ins’

We set up a layer of accountability so internal conflicts can’t be ignored. For example, leaders check in with each other every two weeks. It’s a 10-minute conversation just between them — no boss, no coach, just the two people involved.

They give each other feedback on how they’re doing with their shared and individual goals. Here’s a key point — they ask for, as well as provide, suggestions on how to keep improving their relationship. After each check-in is over, they send a very brief (about 3-5 sentences) update to their boss. The coach is also copied.

The purpose of these “check-ins" is to keep conflict resolution moving. It is designed to monitor progress and improve dialogue. The responsibility for improving is where it should be — with the two leaders themselves.

No. 4 - Evaluate Progress and Celebrate Success

At the end of an intervention (usually about 6 months,) leaders jointly evaluate progress in solving their initial conflict. We do that by asking four questions:

  • What did you set out to do? (What was the shared goal?)
  • What actually happened? (Did you reduce or eliminate the conflict?)
  • Why did it happen? (What did each of you do to achieve this result?)
  • What are you going to do going forward to sustain progress? (What will each of you commit to do or not do in the future?)

The people involved then share this report with their manager or supervisor and celebrate success. If conflict remains, they make a commitment to continue the process until they can work it out.

Another option might be that management makes the decision that leaders are not able to successfully work together. It is important to connect back to the consequences that the manager identified upfront. In this case management must implement the consequences that were identified in Step 1 of the process.

The willingness to follow through on consequences shows the organization that conflict must be resolved and will not be tolerated on an ongoing basis.

Why This Conflict Resolution Process Works

  • Leaders develop and share a mutual understanding of the impact of conflict on their colleagues, teams, and organization.
  • Leaders make a commitment to each other to reduce conflict and improve their working relationship.
  • Leaders hold each other accountable. Their supervisor is also engaged in the process to hold them accountable.
  • Regular, brief conversations about the goals they are working on not only allow them to calibrate their behavioral changes over time, but also build communication and trust between them.
  • Leaders are called upon to assess their improvement in an “After Action Review” which is shared with their supervisor. This is a joint document that both leaders develop, sign off on, and discuss with their manager.
  • Management is involved upfront and throughout the process to ensure that there is accountability and consequences (positive or negative) for success.

When conflict occurs between two leaders, the issues aren’t just about them. The organization needs to support these two high performers, and at the same time be respectful of those who work with them and for them.

The best companies don’t tolerate or ignore conflict; they deal with it in a direct and structured way. That leaves the organization stronger as a result.

Sue Matson, MBA MCC, is an Executive Coach with rd&, Chicago, Illinois.

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