Mine the conflict

Scripture of the Week – Proverbs 27:17: “Iron sharpens iron just as one person sharpens another”

For this week’s content, here’s a shout out to Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team – we’re leaning on some of his material as a backdrop to discuss our own experience helping teams with dysfunction.

Once we have built trust among our teams – the next level of effort required of the leader is to continually mine the conflict that exists or comes up within any organization. When Lencioni talks about this, he does so in the context of directly addressing conflict, making commitments or holding people accountable. All of this can be the result of dysfunction and/or cause conflict which is why the leader must always be on guard and have the courage to address it as it comes up.

In our coaching and consulting work, we find the root of conflict comes in five forms which we’ll briefly cover here:

  1. Process conflict – this is the simplest example. This usually results from a conflict over improving a process problem in a company. While it can be difficult depending on the personalities involved, it usually comes with a relatively easy process that can be measured at each step along the way with opportunities to demonstrate quantifiable improvement from a particular change. Think of this as solving the widget manufacturing problem – the cost side of how your business delivers value. Some conflict may come up as a result but it’s a justifiable business change for the good of the customer.
  2. Business conflict – this is the next level of complexity usually attempting to resolve the revenue side of business delivering value. By changing the design of your widget to improve revenue or expand the product market fit of your company, this can also cause greater conflict because it touches more people and usually is somewhat more ambiguous when making the change. Instead of just solving a quantifiable process problem, this starts to involve the customer and any department who interacts with customers which is why it becomes increasingly difficult to resolve.
  3. Personal conflict – this is anytime personal relationships and politics muddy the waters of a particular decision or change required, even if there would not be a conflict otherwise. Its important to be aware of and willing to call out where loyalties lie within a company beyond the org chart. Who has friends in the company? Who has family in the company (cousins, siblings, spouses, etc)? Whose kids go to school together? Who is part of the same church? What are your relationships as the leader? These personal conflicts will undoubtedly amplify conflict and/or result in conflict where it would otherwise not exist.
  4. Chronic conflict – just like chronic health conditions which may over time impede a person’s ability to live life to the fullest, chronic conflict is the type of conflict which does not always produce dramatic displays of anger, disagreements, etc but exists just under the surface with a tension that holds back a company from maximizing its value. Examples of this can be dysfunctional partnerships, contracts with key stakeholders, CEO pet projects, or political alliances formed around key customers or business units.
  5. Acute conflict – this is of course the most traditional type of conflict when there is a big blow up of anger, resentment, and disagreement which boils over in a public or private way between two people or groups in a company. Its always entertaining and at times necessary to initiate it and/or keep leaning into it but for the vast majority of your teams, very uncomfortable. For those executives who thrive in conflict, like Erik (The Coach), they must wield this power carefully while recognizing this is very uncomfortable for most people.

So what can you do about these types of conflict – we use a five-part framework which you may find helpful:

Q1: What is the conflict? Josh (The Consultant) worked in a two-part organization which had an exclusive contractual relationship between two companies which appeared as one to the public – this was chronic conflict situation where everyone was labeled inside as part of team ‘red’ or ‘blue’

Q2: Who is involved in the conflict? In the example above, Josh found nearly everyone in the company was involved because the chronic conflict was rooted in the relationship between the companies

Q3: How much of the conflict is business-related vs. personal-related? In this example, it started as business but overtime became bitterly personal, especially among some key leaders who were in dyad leadership arrangements and could not stand working with each other.

Q4: How does the leader set the stage for resolution? This requires a combination of addressing personal conflicts and setting up transparent business metrics required for success so the teams can start working in the same direction.

Q5: How does the leader resolve the conflict? This is when the leader must be prepared for bold action. When the conflict is mostly business related, addressing minor conflict and setting up clear expectations can be enough to focus teams and successfully navigate the situation. However, when personal conflict makes up 25%+ of the problem, like in this example above, more radical change is required and that’s what happened in the company where Josh was working. A new CEO to one of the companies worked with the retiring CEO of the other company to eventually remove a pair of dysfunctional COO-level leaders who repeatedly disparaged each other and could not work together. This led to several years of change across the company.

What are some ways The Consultant and The Coach help their clients with conflict and working through frameworks like listed above?

The Consultant

  • Work with a CEO and/or the Board to identify conflict internally as it relates to the Mission, Vision, Values, Strategy and key leaders
  • Support the leadership team with options to address conflict in various areas
  • Work on behalf of the leadership team to resolve conflict where necessary and/or given authority to do so on behalf of the company.

The Coach

  • Conduct a 360 assessment for the CEO and help them figure out their strengths and weaknesses they bring to conflict.
  • Work with a CEO and their key executive leaders in 1:1 sessions to facilitate conflict resolution discussions
  • Teach teams how to resolve personal conflict in healthy ways.

Thanks everyone! We hope this gives you some helpful definitions and framework to mine conflict in ways to make your business more successful.

Leave a Comment