Chapter 7: Leadership in Conflict Management


Liz O'Brien has a dirty little secret. She likes the 6 P.M. to 8 P.M. part of her workday best.

That's when everyone else has gone home, her phone doesn't ring, and she can concentrate on sending out e- mails and voice-mail directives to those who work for her at the San Diego Mediation Center.

And, she sheepishly admits this is wrong.

The president of the mediation center is falling into the same trap that many other [ leaders ] have. She is trying to avoid conflict and perform her job as efficiently as possible. [1]

Much has been written about leadership, including the traits a person must possess and the behaviors he or she must exhibit to inspire confidence and loyalty in other people. In Reframing Organizations , Lee Bolman and Terry Deal say that, when people are asked what leadership is, answers seem to fall into one of four categories:

  1. The use of power to get others to do what you want

  2. The ability to motivate people to get things done

  3. The ability to provide a vision to others

  4. The empowerment of others to get them to do what you want [2]

The focus, in each case, is on action ”that is, on pursuing goals and getting others to pursue them along with the leader.

Other characteristics that are often cited as essential to leaders are the ability to inspire trust and build relationships, the willingness to take risks, self-confidence , interpersonal skills, task competence, intelligence, decisiveness, understanding of followers, and courage. [3]

In these and other summaries of leadership qualities, one essential trait is notably absent, which is the ability to manage conflict. Yet, according to a survey conducted last year by the American Management Association, managers spend at least 24 percent of their workday resolving conflicts. Why then is there a failure to recognize the importance of conflict-management skills?

We can think of two possible explanations . One might be called the rationalistic fallacy. Most literature on leadership focuses on concepts such as visioning, strategy, value creation, organization change, or decision making. You know, arm leaders with a suite of processes to bring these concepts to life, add an analytical component ”one of those ubiquitous managerial grids ”and success will follow. But reality is far more elusive and not easily susceptible to another person's design or will, no matter how well endowed with "the right stuff" that person may be. Underlying a good deal of organizational life is the undertow of dysfunctional conflict. Ignore this fact, or deal with it ineffectively, and all the step-by-step process solutions and matrix-style analyses will fail to deliver on their promises.

It may also be the case that most pundits ”and leaders ”have a fatalistic attitude toward unresolved conflict. It is inevitable. It has always been and will continue to be. Not even the best leader can wipe it out, so why bother? Better to focus on what can be addressed and changed, such as formulating strategy; attending to the elements of the performance system, from goal-setting to seeing to it that key employees are motivated and well trained; becoming the ultimate cheerleader and communicator; being a great role model and coach; and seeing to the care and feeding of key stakeholders. For many people, the idea of involving the leader in the business of redirecting conflict so that it becomes a dynamic force that helps to drive high performance would be tantamount to tilting at windmills!

But neglecting this aspect of leadership is more dangerous than ever before, because of today's global, wired-for-speed business organization, where unresolved conflict has the potential to escalate and permeate the business at the speed of thought. As pointed out earlier, influence, not power, is the new animating organizational force. Leaders can no longer bury conflict by willing it away. They must be at the forefront of conflict, managing it everywhere in the organization.

Lee Chaden, senior vice president of human resources for the Sara Lee Corporation, sums up the power of the leader to set the tone for the entire organization, especially as it relates to conflict management:

The leader is responsible for the company's tone and the environment in which people work. If the leader is confrontational, divisive, and plays individuals against one another out of the belief that internal competitiveness is a good thing, that modus operandi is going to permeate the organization. There is going to be a lot of unconstructive conflict. If, on the other hand, the leader sets a tone of collaboration and teamwork and makes it clear that that's his value system, that will become the value system of the whole organization.

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The Downward Spiral of Maladaptive Leadership: A Case Study

An organization's ability to manage conflict starts with the leader. When that leader is adept at resolving conflict, the rest of the organization will likely follow ”as will business results and success. But when the Goliath falls short of the conflict-management mark, so will the Davids below, creating an organization that is self-absorbed and lacking in competitive punch.

One division of a large automobile manufacturer was run by a chairperson who not only couldn't manage conflict but also generated it. For obvious reasons, the company or the executives involved cannot be named. The chairperson ”let's call him "Scott" ”directed several members of his leadership team to develop a strategy for one of the major segments of the business. The team members remained in continual communication with Scott, seeking his advice and input as they formulated the strategy. All the signals they received from him indicated that they were on the right track.

But reality was different. When the team presented its proposal to Scott and the rest of the management committee, Scott dismissed it summarily. He then proceeded to publicly attack the team members, criticizing their process and the conclusions they had reached. Not surprisingly, the team members were taken aback ”until they learned that Scott had clandestinely hired a consulting firm, as a type of shadow quality control check, to carry out the same assignment they had recently completed. The firm's conclusions, it turned out, were significantly different from those of the internal group .

Scott's behavior was clearly maladaptive, and his lack of honesty was only part of the problem. His penchant for restructuring was also problematic . He changed the division's structure, along with reporting relationships, at least once a year. At one point, he divided R&D into two separate functions, only to reunite them soon afterward and have the reconstituted entity report to him. Twelve months later, Scott again stirred the waters. He decided that R&D should report to the division president instead of to him. The constant churn and change had left his management team worn out and demoralized.

Instability is a breeding ground for triangulation. Before long, members of the top team chose the vice president of human resources, "Sandra," to be the go-between, as they attempted to manage Scott and control damage through the ranks. In a typical encounter, one of these senior managers would come to Sandra with a dilemma such as, "Scott told me to do a study on the sale of our minivans in Europe but not to tell Lillian anything about it. She's the one who has all the sales figures, so how do I do it without talking to her?"

In another case, it was 2 P.M. on a Friday when a fellow team member came barreling into Sandra's office, shouting, "You won't believe this. You know the manufacturing problem we've had a team of twenty people sorting out for the past three days? Scott just pulled me out of a meeting and told me to go into the room where they are meeting and tell them that if the problem isn't solved by 5 P.M. today, they're all going to be fired ."

Sandra catalogued the maladaptive behaviors that the group began to exhibit in response to Scott's machinations, and the effect these behaviors had on the rest of the organization:

People started moving into armed camps around certain issues. In meetings, they said nothing: They had become completely risk-averse because no matter what they said, they felt that they were going to be second-guessed. They gave their tacit agreement, then walked out with essentially no commitment to accomplish or do anything. After each meeting, people would break up into small groups, with everybody rolling their eyes and saying, "Can you believe where we ended up?" These corridor conversations really started grating on the rest of the organization. Because the rest of the organization, even if they are not physically present, can tell that their senior management is not aligned.

The consequences of maladaptive behavior at the top can be ”and usually are ”dire. This case was no exception. Understandably, the top team became inner directed, unable to move beyond the internal strife. The company's sizable R&D investment was being frittered away by false starts, lack of direction, and ineffective discipline, and the constant "rearranging of the deck chairs" that characterized Scott's leadership. The company's sluggish R&D pipeline began to put it at a competitive disadvantage . It was another example of the power of maladaptive leadership to spiral downward.

Although we would like to be able to say that leaders like Scott are the rare exception, the bad news is that, unfortunately , this is not true. Maladaptive leadership is common for several reasons ”some having to do with personality and others with power issues ”and many leaders simply cannot adapt to a team environment. They have trouble letting go of authority, trusting others, and communicating.

On the other hand, reformation is possible. We have encountered few leaders who have not been able to change. The approaches and techniques outlined in this book have proven to be effective catalysts for personal transformation. This transformation begins, as it does in team-alignment sessions, with a look in the mirror.

The Path to Reformation

Disturbed by the atmosphere within the division and the way in which she was being enlisted by the other members of Scott's team, Sandra contacted the corporate vice president of human resources. She recommended an intervention: basically, an alignment of the senior team and personal coaching for Scott. The corporate vice president suggested she speak with each team member individually, then present a list of their concerns to Scott.

When Sandra sat down with Scott for the first time, he was not happy. After all, Sandra had gone over his head, and the corporate vice president now knew that there were chinks in his armor . Denial is a common reaction of leaders to negative feedback, and Scott was no exception. His initial reaction to the picture of his team's concerns that Sandra began to paint was, "That just isn't me."

Sandra's strategy was wise: Depersonalize the feedback. She proceeded to explain to Scott that, "There is hardly any senior leadership team that doesn't have to work on issues, and this is a common part of a team's development. We have to work on these issues just as we would work on any other business issue." She then proceeded to elaborate, in a dispassionate way, on the areas of confusion that existed within the team, such as a lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities, people not knowing where to go for approvals , where the decision-making power resided, and where strategy was being formulated.

As Sandra spoke, it became apparent that Scott hadn't realized how much confusion and strife his behavior had caused. And Sandra pointed out that the responsibility for the situation was not all his. Team members had failed to confront Scott directly. They had chosen , instead, to go underground with their dissatisfaction. Scott, to his credit, listened to Sandra's reasoning and accepted her recommendation that the team devote time and energy to realigning itself. This required Scott to sit through another feedback session, this time with the entire team present and answering questions such as: "What are some of the things that are not working in the way the team functions?" "How would you describe the leadership style of your team leader?" and "What one suggestion would you give your team leader to increase his effectiveness in this position?" The answers the team provided may not have been pleasant for Scott to hear, but they did cause him to stop and think.

It is important for every team, at the beginning of an alignment, to go through the data-review session described in detail in Chapter 4. This phase of the alignment process becomes even more useful when the leader's dysfunctional style has metastasized throughout the team. The picture presented to Scott was not pretty, since the team described itself by using words such as fractious, abrasive, frustrated, conflicted, unclear, divergent , adversarial, polarized, unaligned, tense, siloed, uncommunicative , ineffective, unfocused, and dysfunctional. These words ”and the specific behaviors cited to bring them to life ”cut through whatever internal barriers Scott might have erected. Scott was convinced that the moment of truth had arrived when his team members predicted that "if nothing changes in the next five months, the level of frustration and personal dissatisfaction will rise; people will burn out and leave; internal problems will keep the business from moving forward; the organization will fail to achieve its growth targets; the division will lose the credibility and trust of the parent organization and shareholders; it will implode." Change was imperative.

From Rogue to Role Model

The discussion during the initial alignment session was not entirely negative. Scott's team also offered several simple but powerful suggestions to improve the way in which he interacts with them, both individually and as a group. Triangulation was high on the change agenda. The group demanded that, going forward, triangulation no longer be tolerated ”no matter who tried it. Issues were to be surfaced and resolved by the parties directly involved ”without enlisting a rescuer. Other suggestions for the team's rejuvenated leader included:

  • Assign clear responsibilities to each individual, with no duplication of roles.

  • No more accusing in absentia, and thumbs down to "hands from the grave."

  • Candor during meetings will be a requirement. (Scott's issues and agenda needed to be stated to the team up front; ditto for those of team members.)

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Scott is also working with a personal coach to improve his listening skills and his interpersonal style, two factors that had fueled the team's sense of alienation. Meanwhile, according to Sandra, people have begun providing one another with feedback when they display dysfunctional behavior: "There's now an organizational awareness as well as an individual awareness throughout the division." Dysfunctional leadership is giving way to leadership that is strategically focused and forthright, and the new tone is spiraling downward to replace the old.

[1] Michael Kinsman, "Ignoring Conflict Just Doesn't Work," Copley News Service, March 26, 2001.

[2] Edward G. Wertheim, "Leadership: An Overview,"

[3] Edward G. Wertheim, "Leadership: An Overview,"

When Goliaths Clash. Managing Executive Conflict to Build a More Dynamic Organization
When Goliaths Clash: Managing Executive Conflict to Build a More Dynamic Organization
ISBN: 0615198686
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2002
Pages: 99

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