Manage Conflict Before It Manages Your Leadership Team
Nov 19, 2018
Managing Conflict Before It Manages Your Leadership Team
“Conflict is inevitable. Combat is not.” Brigadier General (Ret.) and CEO of Leader Six, Nolen Bivens
You’ve probably heard me say it before – while the average American worker reports spending 2.1-2.8 hours/week dealing with conflict, my research shows that the average chief of staff spends 4 hours/week! That’s too much time that you’re not doing other, high-value tasks.
That’s a lot of time spent gossiping, protecting turf, retaliating, recruiting people to one side or the other, planning defenses and navigating the drama. – Jennifer Lawler, “The Real Cost of Workplace Conflict” Entrepreneur.com.
So, how do you help the exec you support, and the leadership team, do conflict better?
The first order of business is helping your exec and leadership team define healthy and unhealthy conflict. You can get some time in an upcoming LT meeting to elicit the team’s ideas about what each type of conflict looks like, or ask individual members in your 1:1s with them, or over coffee/happy hour drinks. But get their input, and influence their thinking, because doing so can pull the team out of their collective reptilian brains, where everyone’s simply reacting, and move them into problem-solving mode.
The second order of business is to start “super-colliding” divergent ideas in your LT meetings. One chief of staff reports that when he was new to the role, LT meetings consisted of round-robin status updates. He looked around the room thinking, why aren’t we getting all that info in a dashboard, email report, or a Slack channel that people can read at their leisure and using the brainpower in this room to work on the big, multi-layered, complex, and even contentious problems facing the business? He worked with his exec to transform the meetings into just that kind of forum, and they saw an immediate difference in projects moving forward. If you’re skating over the tough issues, or negotiating behind closed doors but never bringing conflicted parties together at the table to make trade-offs and problem solve, it costs your organization in missed market opportunities, project delays, and regrettable attrition. Those things make for awkward investor calls. The LT look to your leader (and by extension, you) to provide guidance and to facilitate those discussions in a way that leads to better outcomes. In fact, as we talked about at our summer CoS mixer, the CoS holds a unique ability to influence the agenda of those meetings and coach the exec on how to steer them effectively.
If the second order of business is a more proactive approach to conflict, the third is to better react to the conflict that arises unintentionally. That requires you and your exec to be able to articulate different causes of conflict — is it different interpretations of data, competing commitments, a toxic personality? Also, the predictable stages through which conflict progresses. A quick search will yield several frameworks that differ in their language and some nuance but are largely similar. Finally, you should be able to articulate and recognize the conflict styles that each team member tends to default to — if you’re looking at someone with a competitive style in conflict with an avoider, your response will be very different than two competitors. Without being able to articulate and apply knowledge in this space, conflict festers.