CEO Coaching: Exploring Conflict

Some clients don’t agree with me using the word conflict in a positive light. I tell them why I disagree, which I guess is an example of healthy conflict.

Addressing conflict requires consideration of two precursors.

Let’s deal with semantics first. You might prefer the word disagree, oppose, disharmony, fight, strife, struggle, or ruckus. Great, use one of those for the time being.

Second, when I use the word conflict (as in “healthy conflict”), I’m talking about conflict over an idea, not hatred or personal animosity. That isn’t healthy and, although it can bleed into the workplace, is generally outside of leadership’s obligation to solve. Getting two individuals who strongly dislike each other to like each other might be cool, but few executives are willing to spend time on this. A rabbi, priest, or psychologist would be better suited.

Patrick Lencioni deserves tremendous credit for talking effectively about conflict. If you’re one of the few executives who isn’t familiar with his work, read “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” and “The Advantage.”

 Ideas (using the term broadly to include direction, policies, strategy, etc.) should be well-vetted. That requires discussion, inquiry, research, debate, and often healthy conflict. If you don’t have conflict in your executive discussions, you’re somewhere between underperforming and doomed. 

 Well-executed ideas make successful businesses. Unless you ascribe to the One Big Brain theory of leadership (e.g., Elon Musk or Vladimir Putin), generating great ideas and fostering excellent execution requires much dialogue and debate, eventually resulting in concrete ideas and plans. Your path to success requires alignment and commitment, and healthy conflict is a required building block.

Healthy conflict doesn’t take root on its own. It has several requirements. One is trust, one is clarity of vision (once again, used broadly as in “What are we trying to accomplish?”), and another is strong leadership. Not overbearing leadership, but assertive, focused leadership that facilitates effective (and sometimes spicy) discussions. 

Conflict must be managed. Cut off personal attacks, and keep it focused on ideas. Draw out the more reticent team members. Concentrate on the objective. Ensure that the team members are focused on the success of the company over their personal success or that of their fiefdom. 

Managing conflict (around ideas) does not, as often described, mean eliminating it. In fact, you often have to foster it. 

Healthy teams with strong leaders won’t put up with jerks, which eliminates most personal conflict. Disrespectful behavior has no place in a healthy team. Passionate discussion, however, is a cornerstone!

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