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Preventing Conflict

Executive Excellence

by David Gage
Executive Excellence
Volume 16, Number 6
May 1999

A large organization was on the brink of losing a major contract because two key executives could not work together; neither could their teams. Happily, they were open to mediating their differences and managed to turn the situation around.

As we listen to executives describe what gets their teams in trouble, we become aware of patterns and trigger points–subjects that are sensitive and painful. These patterns convince us that prevention is critical to the success of leadership teams.

To succeed, top executives must excel at team play, and they must be individual stars. A balance of both results in effective collaborators who create a sense of camaraderie.

Some like to think that collaboration just happens. Often, however, shared decision-making is hard work because executives have different skills, talents, personalities, and styles. They value different things, and sometimes their personal values are incongruent with those of the organization. Often, executives find innovative ways to go around or undermine their colleagues. In worst-case scenarios, someone has to be fired, and the company loses valuable talent and experience.

Leaders of companies, particularly those that have been merged or acquired, see the importance of working preventatively to ensure that they beat the competition, not one another.

Making the Executive Team a Real Team

What steps are companies taking to ensure that their executive teams collaborate effectively? Some use an informal approach of setting aside time to explore expectations and work out mutual understandings related to roles and responsibilities. Others engage in a more formal process that puts agreements in writing. We find that executive partners excel when they work through such a process.

  • Expectations. Misunderstandings frequently trigger conflict. Executives are challenged to bring into the open-often for the first time-and examine what they expect and want for themselves individually, for themselves as a team, and for the company.
  • Fairness. Executives and partners who discuss fairness and reach agreement will avoid trouble down the road. “What is fair?” is a question that surfaces often. Yet few of us ask it out loud until we’re on the cusp of a conflict or already in the midst of one. By that time, our emotions have gotten the best of us, and the prospect of having a collaborative discussion is dim.
  • Values. To get at what is fair, executives are asked to consider what they value. The typical knee-jerk answer is “money.” Financial packages do need to be fair. However, those who negotiate only dollars are, in effect, turning a sculpture into a painting. What about the other dimensions–respect, recognition, power, decision-making authority, flexibility, mobility, influence? These things hold different value for each individual.
  • Dealing with the unexpected. We use scenario planning to help executives minimize surprises and think about how they will deal with one another when the unexpected happens. The initial step is having each person list all the crucial decision points that the team could face. The group combines their lists and brainstorms additional items. They consider alternative strategies. Then they create guidelines for the future. Through this process, they learn about how they would react to difficult situations.

Executives who trust one another enough to talk honestly about difficult topics don’t need to spend time scheming or second-guessing one another.

Reprinted with permission from Executive Excellence. Copyright: BMC Associates, 1999.