Workplace Wisdom

When Leaders Avoid Conflict, They Hurt Their Teams

In last week’s post, an exec who didn’t wish to appear picky or small-minded missed the chance to address difficult and inappropriate situations created by her subordinate Xerxes when they were still small and potentially containable. Because she hesitated, corrective action plans to focus Xerxes on better behavior were never developed. When Xerxes eventually had to be moved out of the organization, it was a shock to other employees.

The Exec Who Hesitates Is Lost

It’s much easier to face and take action on this kind of problem while the distress and damage are still minimal, and before the exec is locked and loaded with her finger on the trigger. Otherwise, it could look to Xerxes — and to his colleagues who have been unaware of the developing tempest — as if Xerxes made only one mistake and was then too severely taken to task. Even worse, it could appear as if every employee could be subject to executive arbitrariness and punishment.

Whether or not there have been visible warning signs about the exec’s unhappiness, things can get very messy and feel horribly uncomfortable for other employees when she finally lets her negative feelings be known: “Oh, no! The exec isn’t happy and she doesn’t like what Xerxes is doing!”

Everyone working with the exec — including other execs, as well as employees — can become afraid of her dissatisfaction. If the exec really does want to behave collegially, and doesn’t want her team to tiptoe around her and walk on eggshells, she may decide to suppress her own comments further, which can make finding a solution even less likely.

She Likes Me, She Likes Me Not

When an exec doesn’t explain, provide feedback, or call attention to a subordinate’s challenging behavior, regardless of whether she explodes, a problematic subordinate can be left wondering why the exec seemed to like him, his performance, and his proposals on Tuesday, but suddenly doesn’t like them today. The exec will look mercurial at best, but is more likely to be perceived as erratic and out of control.

Leaders need to be able to demonstrate a kind of mental toughness in the face of conflict or disagreeable situations. They should be willing to have people be a little unhappy when they point out the fact that something is going wrong or should be handled differently.

And the folks who are a level of leadership down must show that they can handle the messy period of discomfort while having to justify their proposals, or be edited, or even be disapproved by their management, so that the hierarchy below them sees that a situation like this can be resolved in a positive way.

Follow the Leader

When an exec is concerned that one of her reports is straying into inappropriate territory, she should hear that person out and get a full sense of his views — and then kindly put her concerns on the table. She may be able to share aspects of the situation that employees a level or two down aren’t in a position to see.

The subordinate may have robust counterarguments, or need help to see how to incorporate the exec’s views into current processes and norms. If the exec is asking for something that could be ineffective, awkward, or difficult, the subordinate can legitimately question and explain.

But in most circumstances, the decision is the exec’s choice and risk, and it’s the subordinate’s responsibility to convince the exec, or else to go with the exec’s decision and return to the staff to explain the relevance and benefits of that decision. At the very least, the subordinate should recognize that compliance is the most prudent course of action — or he may decide that this is not the kind of environment he wants to work in, and begin a job search.

Next week’s post has suggestions for handling disagreements productively, whether you’re working up, down, or across the organization.

Onward and upward,


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