CEO Coaching: How to Ruin Your Company by Avoiding Conflict
In my many years of coaching CEOs and other senior executives, I’ve seen one thing cause more damage than anything else. Conflict. No, not too much (though I’ve certainly seen that)—too little. Avoiding the tough decisions and conversations. The underlying problem is usually an internal voice that says, “I want everyone to like me.” Your parents may have told you it isn’t nice to make people feel bad. If they truly believed that, they were somewhat misguided and probably would’ve made bad CEOs.
When you avoid conflict, behavioral problems get worse. Your company’s culture is a function of the behaviors that you: (a) reward and (b) allow. The allow piece gets you in trouble. It is also not fair to those individuals. You are training them in dysfunction and creating entitlement.
When you avoid conflict, you spend excessive time cleaning up messes you created by not taking tough action when it was desirable. Problem-solving is part of every CEO’s portfolio, but it shouldn’t dominate your calendar. Problems rarely get smaller with the passage of time.
When you avoid conflict, you make poor hiring decisions, allowing some bad apples to get to senior levels and stay there. Hiring and promotions should propel you toward something good, not allow you to avoid tough conversations. An extreme outlier is the CEO who can’t make a hard decision so creates a job-sharing situation. Ridiculous!
When you avoid conflict, turnover is high because nobody wants to work for a bad boss. See the previous paragraph. Eventually you either have a feeble group of people or must pay extravagant salaries to keep anyone who can fog a mirror.
When you avoid conflict, decision-making is slow and irrational because you must include everyone and their ideas. Individuals focused on their self-interest instead of the company’s must decide everything from, “What color should we paint the lunchroom?” to “What’s our company strategy?” And, per the last paragraph, these aren’t A players making those decisions.
When you avoid conflict, you likely hand out large severance packages. Paying people to go away is easier than telling them the truth and correcting bad behavior.
When you avoid conflict, your senior team will lack alignment. Because you can’t have assertive conversations where they weigh in on issues, you never know what people are thinking. They won’t support decisions, though you may not know it because you created a culture where healthy disagreement isn’t acceptable.
When you avoid conflict, you lack a clear strategy because crafting strategy and creating plans to execute it requires tough conversations and decisions. The essence of strategy requires alignment (see previous point) around a specific direction and saying no to everything else.
When you avoid conflict, you don’t sleep well because you ruminate about bad things going on that you refused to resolve.
I could go on, but you get the picture.
Healthy conflict is required for a high-performing organization. An organization that’s replete with conflict-avoiders has a CEO who tries to please everyone.
You can learn to have assertive, tough conversations. It takes practice to figure out how to use the right words and lots of reps before it becomes comfortable. It starts by understanding the necessity of doing so. If what I wrote above doesn’t convince you, leading others may not be the best fit for you.
coaches CEOs to higher levels of success. He is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000 people. Todd is the author of, Never Kick a Cow Chip On A Hot Day: Real Lessons for Real CEOs and Those Who Want To Be (Morgan James Publishing).