Thinking Out Loud

Trouble Between Leaders? — Make it a workplace project!

When two leaders in an organization don’t get along, everyone knows it, even when there is no overt conflict or demonstrable rift. It’s as it is in families when parents think the kids are oblivious and, in fact, the kids are well aware if parental harmony shifts to discord.

HR personnel may not be equipped to deal with leadership rifts . . . or leadership won’t allow them to help because HR is too many steps below senior leaders on the organizational ladder.

Owners and CEOs, usually without the skills and knowledge to address the problem either may instruct those in conflict to “talk it out and move on.” Simple, straightforward advice that sometimes works and may include having said CEO/owner sitting as mediator to give stability and accountability to the process.

The longer the problem goes unaddressed, however, even if nothing bad happens, the more likely it is that uncomfortable feelings increase. This is human nature.  When conflict is stuck, we have an internal narrative that explains everything.  Although we may be “right” about most of it, whatever we’re “wrong” about becomes increasingly dangerous.  We develop beliefs and give meaning to what happened and why, which gets fixed in time.  And without new, accurate information from the other person, we get nowhere, compounding the negative feelings.

Common, ineffective solutions include physically separating the individuals (i.e. moving their offices farther apart), shifting their responsibilities or projects so they have as little interaction as possible, and changing one or both job titles. These attempts to stabilize the situation result in an incoherent organizational structure that produces a wide ripple effect.

An often unrecognized consequence is the diminishment of human capital. Those who report to the leaders in conflict become increasingly cautious, not wanting to get in the middle of something so they hold back, don’t take as many risks or suggest innovations, etc.  The cost to morale is easy to recognize but the cost to productivity often gets overlooked.

So what can be done?

Begin by recognizing that most conflict has some element of misunderstanding, and most misunderstanding has some element of communication styles friction. Then follow a step-by-step process to help understand and resolve the conflict. A process, such as the one below, creates structure and emotional safety for those involved because it does not place blame and provides a means for thoughtful discussion.


  1. Gather information about the immediate situation that resulted in the problem: Was there a precipitating event?
  2. Explore the context of the conflict within the organization: Who or what else might be influencing the conflict?
  3. Examine the beginning of the working relationship: How did their relationship begin and how were the initial dynamics?
  4. Discover the processing strengths and weakness of the participants: Who has good verbal, logical, interpersonal, strategic awareness skills, etc.?
  5. Learn what motivates each individual: What’s really at stake for each of them?
  6. Discover the pattern that brings out defensiveness in each individual: Is there a sensitive issue, like questioning integrity or intelligence?
  7. Discover and teach to the communication skills gaps of each person: What basic relationship skills need to be introduced to stabilize communication?
  8. Develop a collaborative plan for re-building the relationship(s): What can they agree to do immediately that they believe will help the relationship?
  9. Involve participants’ managers in the plan as needed: Who else should be aware of the plan to insure accountability?
  10. Provide follow-up to problem-solve and reinforce new learning:  At what intervals is it best to review progress?

Who can oversee the process? Perhaps someone in HR or organizational development or a CEO/owner. Make the process transparent to the individuals involved, as well as with the facilitator. It should be a collaborative project, with all three contributing to the outcome—not unlike any other collaborative workplace project.

The very first question I like to ask participants is this: When we complete this project, what is the very best solution you can fantasize?  Don’t ask what is realistic, likely, or what they hope for. They should strive for establishing their best intentions by thinking aspirationally. This sets a positive tone and encourages best effort for a best outcome, just as they would do for any other aspect of their work.

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