Resolving Conflict Between Your Managers When two of your top people are at each other's throats, you've got to step in and help them make peace.
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Q: I have two passionate department managers, each with their own management style, who lately have seemed to get mired in territorial issues, and their lack of teamwork is threatening my entire operation. Although I'm aware of the escalating situation, I'm reluctant to upset either one them, as they're both important to my operation. However, I fear the lack of cooperation will cause significant damage to my company. What should I do?
A: Feelings, feelings everywhere. We love to pretend that emotion plays no part in business, but in this case, anger and conflict are pushing your managers apart. Your apprehension and uncertainty about what to do are causing you to do nothing rather than facilitate the peace. Your situation is mired in feelings.
Whatever happens, you have to take the initiative, and you have to do it from an attitude of strength that isn't threatening to the other players. If you go in fighting, you'll create a fight. So choose a different approach; choose cooperation. Start by adopting an organizational point of view: There's a problem keeping the organization from reaching its goals. Start your conversations with the goal of getting the organization moving with everyone on board. If you find yourself starting to drift into confrontation, take a break and regroup. Relentlessly keeping a solution-oriented mindset is essential.
First, try smoothing out relations between the managers. They may be having their own strong emotions about what's happening. If so, start by giving space for them to experience those emotions. Acknowledge both of their experiences. "You seem very upset by this," may be enough. Let them talk and feel heard. Keep your own judgment and reactions out of it; just listen.
Search for a goal that they're both committed to achieving. Survival of the company is a good one, unless you can think of something more specific. Working from the common goal, explain that you've noticed their different styles are really preventing the goal from being achieved. Spend some time listing out their differences explicitly; then go down the list and figure out what you really care about and what you don't, and resolve what you can so you can get back on track moving the company forward. If the root conflict vanishes, things should smooth out all around.
You might also take a look at the following books to help you in facilitating the peace campaign:
- The book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion by Marshall Rosenberg is an excellent book on communicating around highly charged emotional situations.
- I highly recommend you read the book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen. This book brilliantly lays out tactics and strategies for speaking difficult truths and bringing up tough topics.
By taking the initiative, at the very least, you're making sure you're part of the ongoing discussion. After all, if things keep going the way they've been going, a blowup will happen one way or another. This way, you are spearheading some difficult conversations, but you still have a chance to turn the conflict into a discussion of aligning around company goals.
As an entrepreneur, technologist, advisor and coach, Stever Robbins seeks out and identifies high-potential start-ups to help them develop the skills, attitudes and capabilities they need to succeed. He has been involved with start-up companies since 1978 and is currently an investor or advisor to several technology and Internet companies including ZEFER Corp., University Access Inc., RenalTech, Crimson Soutions and PrimeSource. He has been using the Internet since 1977, was a co-founder of FTP Software in 1986, and worked on the design team of Harvard Business School's "Foundations" program. Stever holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a computer science degree from MIT. His Web site is a http://www.venturecoach.com.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.