The CEOs Role in Managing Conflict

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What happens when you hear the word “Conflict”? Do you cringe with a mix of dread and discomfort? Do you dust off the metaphorical boxing gloves, ready to step into the ring? Or are you somewhere in between? Regardless of where you fall on the Conflict Comfort spectrum, one thing is certain: Conflict is a real part of every executive team’s dynamic.

At Summit Leadership Partners, our research and deep experience working with executive teams tells us that one of the critical elements that separates high performing teams from average teams is an ability to engage in healthy and productive conflict (the kind that leads to idea generation, problem-solving, and sound decision making) and quickly resolve unhealthy and unproductive conflict (the kind that leads to eroded trust, bad dynamics, and hurt feelings). We believe the best teams are the ones that can actually use conflict as a means to grow together.

As leaders of executive teams, CEOs play important roles in conflict. Yet so often when I am working with executive teams experiencing conflict, the role the CEO is playing is not always helpful (even if their intentions are positive). Playing the right role can be tricky and oftentimes, the role a CEO plays exacerbates unhealthy conflict and/or squelches productive conflict. Here are some examples of roles I’ve seen recently:

  • The Confidante – A newly formed executive team was clearly storming, and its members were experiencing interpersonal strife. The CEO of the team encouraged team members to come to her to “vent and complain” and she lent a sympathetic ear. In one of our initial conversations, she reflected to me, “I’m concerned about the back-channel conversations happening on this team. I just don’t understand why they keep coming to me instead of trying to work these issues out amongst themselves.” Without realizing it, she had reinforced said backchannels by setting the expectation that they come to her, rewarding the complaining with sympathy, and failing to direct them to resolve the issues with each other.
  • The Punisher – During an executive team offsite the EVP of Marketing at a rapidly growing SaaS company flagged a critical issue with the Product roadmap that could lead to significant customer attrition if not addressed. His leader’s response was to chastise him for surfacing the issue. “This isn’t the time or place, Bill,” the CEO said. “You’re always trying to take us off topic with your doom and gloom.” Unfortunately, the topic was never raised again, by Bill or by anyone. People no longer felt safe raising issues.
  • The Go-Between – This CEO first became aware of a problem when his CFO came to him with a gripe about the GM of their European region. “He is so infuriating,” she said. “I’ve told him time and again that we’re using a new reporting system and that he and his team had to get on board, but month after month we get these spreadsheets from him, and my team spends days trying to make sense of them.” The CEO immediately went to the GM to share what he had heard from the CFO, only to get an earful from the GM: “She’s an idiot! She doesn’t understand our business; the system she wants us to use doesn’t capture the critical data we need!” Alarmed, the CEO went back to the CFO to tell her she needed to learn the European business. A few weeks later during a weekly meeting, the CEO sensed some tension in the room. “I couldn’t quite put my finger on it,” he confided, “but no one was looking at each other or making eye contact with me, and no one said a word while we were going over the financials.” Instead of helping to solve an interpersonal conflict, the CEO had made it worse and, in the process, eroded the team’s trust in him.
  • The Premature Tiebreaker – In the midst of discussing how to address the headwinds created by supply chain delays, this CEO wanted to make sure her team had “all the facts”; she interrupted the debate with her opinion only to observe the conversation come to a screeching halt before all invested members had the chance to chime in. The head of Manufacturing responded with, “well, I guess that’s how we’ll handle it, then.” Unwittingly, she had facilitated false consensus and commitment by not allowing all voices to be heard.
  • The Spectator – During a heated debate regarding a manufacturing outage, this CEO, unlike the Premature Tiebreaker, allowed the conflict amongst his team members to escalate to the point where it became personal. Too soon the team was raising voices, calling each other names, or actively disengaging from the discussion. When we talked, the CEO was perplexed. “I don’t get it,” he said. “I always love a good fight – it leads to better decisions. But this team? They just went after each other’s throats.” Unfortunately, this CEO had failed to recognize the environment was lacking trust and therefore conflict was viewed as a personal attack.

Knowing what role you as a leader should play and when is more art than science, as it depends on the nature of the conflict, the context in which the team is operating, and the make-up of the team. As you determine the role you should play, consider the following questions:

  • Have I created the right environment for team trust?
  • Do I encourage honest discussion, where people can share diverse perspectives?
  • Do people feel comfortable being vulnerable? Have I role modeled vulnerability?
  • Do I engage all team members – including the introverts – in the conversation?
  • Have the team and I agreed on how to make decisions together, what to do when we reach an impasse, and who has the ultimate say in what kinds of decisions?
  • Do I adequately facilitate commitment to the resolution by clarifying roles and accountabilities, and making sure their commitments are documented?

Remember, the ultimate role of a team leader is to ensure the team is growing and equipped to deliver results. Unhealthy, unmanaged conflict can impede this. Even though it can be intimidating, uncomfortable, or unfamiliar territory, I encourage you to work on your conflict management skills and to engage your team in the process. Doing so can only help strengthen your team and ultimately increase your leadership impact within your organization.