Conflict In Leadership: How To Resolve Clashes Among Team Members
Fact: not everyone will see eye-to-eye all the time.
As much as we would like to have warm, congenial relationships with everyone at work, it’s inevitable (read: part of being human) that conflicts arise.
What matters most is what we do next.
Many new clients approach us precisely because they have a situation where two members of staff (usually senior leaders) don’t agree. In these situations, we engage with the system and help create guidelines around how groups or leaders should interact, collaborate, and communicate.
Although getting to know one another doesn’t assume that you’ll grow to like one another, we believe that it’s an important part of the process. And as Brené Brown reminds us...
People are hard to hate close up. Move in.
Researcher. Storyteller. Courage-builder.
Begin With Common Ground
Generally, we seek to find some common ground and establish a frequency of meetings that helps the individuals in conflict to see the benefits of working more closely together.
Because if two leaders at the highest levels of the organization aren’t getting along... what happens to the functions and teams below them?
It’s also interesting to consider how defined the relationship is. For example, are there frequent meetings? How do you plan to work together? Who is in charge? And how will you make decisions?
That last one, decision-making, can often be a point of contention. Often one leader wants to make decisions quickly, while the other prefers to dig into the data and think through all of the implications. The two end up frustrating one another which creates an opportunity for conflict to arise.
That’s exactly what happened with M and B.
M was a leader on a senior team I used to work with and he was known as “Action Jackson”, in contrast, B liked to look at things from every angle and required quiet time to parse through all the data. They each needed to respect one another’s approach and learn to communicate and compromise.
The fact that they’re so different can actually work in their favor.
Some situations require a fast response, so M’s desire to move into action mode can support the organization in being responsive, nimble, and maintaining the innovative edge the organization is known for. Whereas B can sometimes be more strategically focused and his attention to detail can be critical in mitigating risk.
Using The Strength Deployment Inventory To Resolve Conflict
When we have two leaders managing conflict together, we typically engage with a tool like the Strength Deployment Inventory's (SDI) conflict assessment. This assessment allows us to see how each party communicates when things are going well, what motivates them, and how they behave during a conflict.
The 4 Main Values Or Motivators According To The SDI
According to the SDI, there are four main driving values or motivators that influence how people behave (you can also combine them to create subcategories).
Individuals are motivated by assertiveness and love to take action and get things done. They’re typically direct, forceful, and focused on achieving their goals.
Individuals are motivated by the need for meaningful order. They’re typically objective, principled, cautious, and thorough.
Individuals motivated by flexibility love finding creative solutions to problems and quickly adapt to changing circumstances. They’re typically innovative, adaptable and focused on exploring new possibilities.
Individuals are motivated by cooperativeness and prioritize maintaining relationships and building connections with others. They’re typically empathetic, supportive, and focused on building consensus.
Using the SDI can help the individuals involved in the conflict to understand and predict what the other person might do. It also gives them the important WHY behind their behaviors (we’re big fans of Simon Sinek around here).
When we look at SDI’s conflict model, it also helps us assess whether someone wants to engage right away or whether they need to take a little bit of time, whether they’re just trying to get the outcome they’re looking for or whether they’re also concerned about the people involved - and for that we need to look at the three stages of conflict.
The 3 Stages Of Conflict According To The SDI
STAGE ONE -
We’re concerned with the other person (or entity), the problem, and ourselves. At this stage, we’re still feeling open-minded and optimistic. Ideally, all conflicts would be resolved at this stage.
STAGE TWO -
We’re no longer concerned about the other person. We’re focused on the problem and ourselves. We’re most likely experiencing tension and friction and struggling to reconcile competing priorities and different perspectives.
STAGE Three -
It’s important to note that we rarely reach this stage and some people may never get to this point. Here the increasing stress narrows our focus again, and all we’re concerned about is ourselves. We can’t engage in any true problem-solving. It can look like actively working against each other or using negative or destructive behaviors to assert your own interests at the expense of others.
We often combine the SDI with the Thomas-Kilmann Instrument (TKI) for even greater insights into how the senior leaders involved respond to conflict and solve problems.
In one organization, I know a great leader who’s strategic and no-nonsense. She’s newer to the company and has been tasked with instituting and creating change and ensuring better financial management. She has a peer who has been there for longer. He’s an expert in his function and well-respected in his field. In his function, in the past, it was less important to be revenue-producing and a handshake or a verbal commitment was fine.
Given the new remit, however, the two can get into conflict over their differing approach. And it’s their commitment to the organization that creates common ground and helps them move through conflict to better collaborate.
Applying the Thomas-Kilman Instrument To Resolve Conflict
The goal for the people we work with is to encourage them to engage in all five of the TKI approaches to conflict and use them according to the situation at hand.
The 5 Approaches To Conflict Resolution According To The TKI
The TKI measures the approach to conflict along two axes - cooperativeness and assertiveness. Someone who approaches conflict by competing is high in assertiveness and low in cooperativeness. They use power, influence, or force to win a conflict.
This approach can be useful in situations where quick action is needed, or there is a clear right or wrong answer.
This approach is high in assertiveness and cooperativeness. It involved working with the other party to find a mutually beneficial solution. It can be useful in situations where both parties have important interests or goals that need to be addressed.
This approach is moderate in assertiveness and cooperativeness. It’s all about finding a middle ground or partial solution that is acceptable to both parties. It’s useful in situations where both parties are willing to give up something to reach a resolution.
Avoiding is low in both assertiveness and cooperativeness. Just like the name implies, it involved avoiding or ignoring the problem altogether. It can be useful in situations where the conflict is minor or where there’s no immediate need to resolve the conflict.
The last approach to conflict identified by the TKI is low in assertiveness and high in cooperativeness. It involved giving in to the other party’s demands in order to resolve the conflict. It can be useful in situations where the relationship with the other party is the most important factor or where the issue isn’t critical.
What we often find is that people have a preference for one particular reaction or response. For example, someone might always want to compromise, or they might really love to compete. Conflict can easily arise if someone is always competing and they bump up against someone who expects a compromise.
Obviously, this isn’t great for business, especially if the conflict involves senior leaders, because we want there to be an organizational lens given to how the system works, and if the individuals involved are always swinging the pendulum one way (or the other) we may not be making the best decisions for the business.
When Conflict In Leadership Arises, Ask Yourself...
The next time you find yourself in conflict, and you’re wondering what might be the best approach, try asking yourself these questions:
What’s the nature of the conflict? Use the Eisenhower Matrix - is it urgent or can it wait; is it important or minor?
Who is involved in the conflict? Are there multiple parties with different perspectives, priorities, interests, or goals?
What are the underlying motivations or interests of each party (assertive, cooperative, or flexible)? What are the main concerns that need to be addressed?
What is the desired outcome? What would a successful resolution of the conflict look like for all parties involved?
What are the potential risks or consequences of each approach to conflict listed in the TKI? How might these impact relationships and outcomes?
What are the strengths of each approach to conflict?
Who is impacted by a decision or resolution?
Do you have all the information or data you need to find a solution? If not, what’s missing?
We know it’s difficult to address conflict, poor performance or behavior in the workplace. And yet it happens at every level, from boards to senior leaders to client-facing employees. And while it might be tempting to try to avoid the problem, it rarely goes away on its own and generally gets worse.
If someone is ineffective or causing issues, sitting down with a trusted HR person to talk through the situation, brainstorm solutions and commit to next steps and timelines can support the healthy functioning of the organization. And if HR is part of the problem, consider enlisting the help of a trusted leader, board member, or outside consultant.
If you’re looking for support, we’d love to partner with you to talk through the situation, create a plan and even design and facilitate assessments and training.