Conflict that is controlled and managed effectively can actually bring positive results, drawing out innovative ideas and solutions. Uncontrolled conflict can instead derail business objectives. When uncontrolled conflict occurs at the employee level, members of the leadership team can bring objectives back on track by taking appropriate action to resolve the issue. But when executives are in conflict, the only people who can take action are their peers.
Employees in the Crossfire
Employees witnessing executives in conflict should not try to be peacemakers. They simply don’t have the right authority. If you’re an employee caught in the crossfire between executives, you can try to excuse yourself or turn the course of discussion to other business issues that demand attention. If you’re chairing a meeting that is interrupted by the conflict, politely request that the issue at hand be tabled for future discussion so the rest of the meeting agenda can be addressed.
If the conflict causes you to receive opposing objectives from the executives involved, you’re more than caught in the crossfire -- you could become a casualty. It is not unheard of for someone to have responsibilities to more than one boss. This situation requires strong communication channels and project documentation that is visible to both bosses. If their schedules, tasks or goals conflict, it will be up to you to manage up. Schedule time with both bosses at once, explain the conflicts and ask them to find a resolution. They’re the ones who have to work out their differences.
When an executive conflict develops, a peer must come forward to act as the mediator. If you’re on the executive team, don’t ignore your colleagues’ arguments. Conflict that’s allowed to get out of hand can affect business. Customer issues might not get the attention they deserve, and employee frustration could start to affect the quality of operations. Work with the rest of the executive team to bring the situation to closure. Leadership skills do include mediation. Use those skills to protect stakeholders.
Colleagues must act quickly to resolve the executive conflict. Executives do lead by example, and providing an example based on conflict can cause dissent to spread across the workplace. Begin by meeting with each individual to discuss the situation and gather information. When it is time to bring the executives together, select a neutral location for the discussion. It might take several conversations and a variety of proposed solutions before a healthy resolution can be reached.
Take Preventive Measures
Once the conflict is resolved, maintain confidentiality and treat the event as a closed issue -- but don't stop there. Consider options to prevent a repeat occurrence. Clarify leadership roles and responsibilities to eliminate any gray areas over which more than one executive could claim ownership. Introduce objective and diplomatic facilitators to support committee meetings. Remind each other that business needs transcend personal likes or dislikes, and respect for each other -- and for the rest of the company -- is critical to meeting business objectives.
A careers content writer, Debra Kraft is a former English teacher whose 25-plus year corporate career includes training and mentoring. She holds a senior management position with a global automotive supplier and is a senior member of the American Society for Quality. Her areas of expertise include quality auditing, corporate compliance, Lean, ERP and IT business analysis.