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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.

Her hesitation meant that Xerxes never got the necessary corrective action plans. When he eventually had to be moved out of the organization, it was a shock to the rest of the organization.

The Exec Who Hesitates Is Lost

It can be awful to have to deal with an employee who’s not working out. But, it’s much easier to face and take action on this kind of problem while the distress and damage are still minimal. If the exec appears neutral when she’s really locked and loaded with her finger on the trigger, it can look to Xerxes — and to his colleagues who have been unaware of the developing standoff — as if he 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.

Everyone working with this exec — including other execs, as well as employees — can become afraid of her dissatisfaction. If the exec really does want to behave collegially, rather than clearing the air, she may suppress her own comments further, which can make finding a performance solution even less likely.

She Likes Me, She Likes Me Not

Whether she explodes or not, when an exec doesn’t explain, provide prompt feedback, or call attention to a subordinate’s challenging behavior, 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, and may be perceived as erratic or out of control.

Leaders need to be able to demonstrate a kind of mental toughness and resistance 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 needs to be handled differently.

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.

The subordinate may have robust counterarguments, or need help to incorporate the exec’s views into current processes and norms. If the subordinate believes the exec is asking for something that’s 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 either to change the execs opinion, or to return to the staff to explain the relevance and benefits of the exec’s 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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