What Happens When Leaders Can’t Effectively Resolve Disagreements?

by Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D., the Mission-Based Leadership Coach

 I have great, intelligent, talented professionals on my leadership team and I am proud of each one.  But it is frustrating how often they end up at odds with each other. Don’t they understand the organization can’t function well if they don’t communicate?!  Why can’t they just figure out how to get along??

If you tend to think most workplace conflict is caused by personality differences, you’re not alone.  But my experience leads me to conclude that this is a misconception.  Ben Dattler addresses this misconception in a recent article (May 20, 2014) in the Harvard Business Review, arguing that “the real reasons for conflict are a lot harder to … resolve — because they are likely to be complex, nuanced, and politically sensitive.”

Sometimes, different leaders are in conflict because they hold sincere differences in understanding of the vision and goals. Sometimes, leaders are in conflict because successful achievement of the job performance goals of one actually conflict with the successful achievement of the job performance goals of another.  The systems we lead these days are very complex!

In spite of agreeing to work hard at being collaborative, the Director of Admissions and the Director of Emergency Services were frequently in conflict with each other. Other leaders in the system felt this conflict was having a negative effect on hospital functioning and patient care and it was an area of frequent patient complaints. The Chief Operating Officer, having addressed the issue several times, was very frustrated and was even considering letting one of them go.  Finally, she decided to take more time exploring the source of the repeated conflicts and learned that, while each leader had responsibility for hospital admissions, they had different goals and used different processes. This was causing lots of paperwork mishaps and rework.  Recognizing this, the leadership team was able to address the systemic problems and working relationships and patient care both improved in meaningful ways.

Some common ways leadership teams handle disagreements include:

  1. Power Struggles—leaders may battle for power, trying to ensure that things go the direction that will most benefit them or their part of the organization.  It doesn’t have to indicate that you have leaders with pathological issues with power; in fact, it may be that the system rewards leaders achieving their goals at whatever cost.
  2. AvoidanceI don’t want to cause a furor-– let’s just pretend there is no disagreement here and hope everything works out.  In this circumstance, different parts of the organization may function reasonably well within themselves but they may have frequent clashes with other parts of the organization.  This can produce organizational dysfunction, rework, poor customer service, frustration and turnover, and financial loss.

What is the cost of these unconstructive approaches to disagreements?

  1. The leadership team never achieves great results– and it’s difficult to attract and retain the best leaders because of it.
  2. Real problems fail to be identified – or solved—and this causes poor customer service, poor results, and loss of reputation.
  3. Your organizational culture may be quite different from what you intend. Whatever you say about your organizational culture, if disagreements are handled poorly, you may have a culture that reinforces avoidance (don’t talk about problems) or unhealthy aggression (the most aggressive wins).
  4. Just like when parents lack a way to resolve parenting disagreements, you may find that employees in the organization, realizing that leaders are disunited, will pick and choose which leader to follow, based on what’s most appealing to them.

So, what’s the alternative??  To build a high-performing leadership team, you must establish agreed-upon approaches for managing conflicts.  The next paper will address how you can build an approach that truly allows the organization to benefit from the disagreements between leaders.

What have YOU discovered about how to maximize the benefit of leadership disagreements to benefit a mission-based organization??


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