Dealing with conflict at the top

Imagine if aliens were watching their equivalent of a National Geographic documentary about humans and how various leaders of their tribes (corporate, political or country) fight for dominance over their rivals. And whilst one tribe has its own internal leadership war, another nearby tribe delights as they see cracks and weaknesses where they can jump in and grab territory.

When individuals at the top of an organisation are at war with each other three things happen:

1. The whole group (and stakeholders) becomes weaker, not stronger, and is vulnerable to attack and loss;
2. Time is wasted by confusion, debate, emotions and blaming;
3. Wounds cause scars that etch in everyone’s memory.

When those at the top of a business or political party are throwing lightning bolts at each other the whole organisation suffers. Typically, the two individuals (or factions) will take protective positions against each other. This puts an almost instant block on any constructive collaboration between the two groups. It’s difficult enough when two individuals take this stance, but when they oversee entire departments or groups of people a deep divide can be quickly created.

It goes without saying that the leaders, executives, senior managers, directors and board members have a major influence on how an organisation is run, but the less acknowledged fact is that they also have a major effect on how the rest of the people in the organisation interact.

The most common reasons for conflict at the top are:

• Poor performance and problems achieving results (weak leadership);
• Poor communication and lack of open, honest culture;
• Issues around reputation, pride, personal gain and ego;
• Resources or funding allocations.

If this behaviour is sustained over any length of time it becomes ingrained in the culture, and soon enough the ability to retain talent and to have cross-functional wins within the business will quickly fade. People throughout the business learn to protect themselves from criticism. Then there is the point scoring and politicking that lies at the opposite end of the spectrum to teamwork and co-operation.

In a company, the effects don’t limit themselves to staff. The external perception of the business suffers and customer-company interactions start to fray.

Conflicts are inevitable, but need to be nipped in the bud as quickly as possible. Everyone needs to be aware of early signs of conflict and implement resolution strategies before it causes major problems. They can be minimised and resolved efficiently and effectively.

Conflict is actually a healthy process for a business – a way to explore options, consider best practice and gain commitment. If everyone agrees on every issue then you either have a lack of honesty in your organisation or a lack of conviction from those who differ on opinion. Both open the company up to making avoidable errors.

Conflict is beneficial when it is a difference of opinion on how to achieve better outcomes for the business. If the conflict is fuelled by personality differences or individual motives then they will become unnecessarily pointed and emotional. If they are built around a collective goal then common ground exists for the conflicting parties to work together. This is the ultimate aim of any organisation.

The important thing with conflict is to work through it quickly. Get the warring individuals to hammer out the issues until they reach a point of mutual respect (not necessarily agreement on issues). From here a healthy working relationship can move forward.

Eve Ash has produced a wide range of video resources to help businesses develop open communication, improve leadership and achieve best practice (available from Seven Dimensions, www.7d-tv.com)

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