Conflict at the top – organisational impact, prevention and cure


Danu Consulting ¦ Business Management and Leadership Development ¦Mediation

As a student of the mediation process and techniques, I’ve been thinking about the conflicts we see every day in our work lives. I have long held the opinion that a certain level of conflict is a good thing in teams, and I still believe that. According to ‘Moore’s model on conflict’ – conflict generally arises because of some level of difference between individuals; roles, values, methods, goals, access to data.
Differences can be good in an organisation, it is often called having a ‘healthy tension’ because varying perspectives are brought forward and it can allow creativity in problem solving; where people can voice differing opinions, bring forth vastly different ideas, play devil’s advocate and force each other to test their hypothesis. If there is an underlying trust and respect for the value each person brings, then these differences are hugely beneficial to an organisation. Differences can also be disruptive and reduce effectiveness in an organisation. I have been thinking about what makes differences be a healthy force vs a disruptive force, the impact that the disruptive differences can have on an organisation, and at what point should a manager do something about it.
In a previous role I saw a perfect case study for this at a very senior level in the company between 2 executives leading large functions within the same organisation. There was a significant business issue that spanned both their functions and required them to collaborate in order to fix. Using Moore’s model, some of the differences between these individual leaders were;

  • value perspective, Leader 1 preferring speed, immediate action and Leader 2 preferring well thought out plans       and longterm fixes
  • data perspective, each was getting differing information from their teams and this info was not being shared;
  • method perspective of leading their organisations, L1 was command and control and thrived in crisis, L2 preferred stability and empowered his people.
  • Role perspective, L1 was in the ‘parental state’ and L2 in the ‘child state’ so this created an imbalance of power, that stifled the ability to reach a resolution.

These differences, plus the catalyst of not having any underlying relationship from which to build on, lead each to having a negative opinion of the other – ‘L1 is a control freak that shoots from the hip’ and ‘ L2 has no idea what is going on and is doing nothing to save the business’.
The impact of this business issue and the ensuing conflict, or ‘dysfunctionality’, as it became known, was interesting. Due to the behaviour and approach of these leaders, one organisation was in fear and trepidation of their leader L1, their behaviour modified to emulate what they saw in him and they adopted a command and control approach. L1’s approach to his peer (L2) was in the ‘parental state’ managing him in a ‘child state’, and that is exactly how his organisation behaved to L2’s group. Because L1’s organisation were behaving in the parental state, L2’s organisation acted like a child, looking to be told what to do next, they felt overpowered and perceived their leader (L2) to be absent in the power struggle and their confidence in him was undermined. This created a very tangible ‘Us and Them’ situation between the organisations which makes problem solving, conflict resolution and change management extremely difficult and introduces a blame culture.
Let’s examine the role of the manager of the 2 leaders. In this case their manager actually had asked them to sit down and rationally work through this several times and eventually proposed a peer to facilitate both they and their teams in getting alignment, which resulted in 3 day long, large team meetings. Some agreements were made but few that have stuck. Clearly a lot of damage has been done already, the relationship between the 2 individuals is broken and their behaviours have trickled down to their organisations. They are at an impasse and the business issue has not gone away.
In analysing this several important things come to mind; – the managers’ choice of facilitator/mediator – this was a peer that one leader felt was a supporter of the other, so in their opinion was biased at the outset, clearly this did not enable the formal mediation process to be successful. The setting was a large group of 20/25 people – the relationships are already badly damaged but people are trying to be professional so the real issues don’t surface, and given there is a fear of 1 leader, people don’t want to rock the boat for fear of repercussion. As you can see the picture painted is not really conducive to resolving the problem and gaining a lasting agreement, and so the saga continues…
This case study is a perfect example of a) how through understanding differences early on, we can recognise the signs of disruptive conflict and address them before they happen, and b) when conflict is eminent, following a formal mediation process is essential.
To summarise the key learnings from analysing this case

  • Differences can result in Organisational benefits but can also result in major disruption and reduced organisational effectiveness
  • A fundamental trigger between what can be beneficial conflict vs dysfunctional conflict is whether there is an underlying relationship based on trust and respect for the value that each person’s differences bring.
  • Managers need to foster relationship building within their teams and not assume it happens without effort
  • People are complex and we should never assume anything by what we perceive.
  • In a case of conflict, managers need to be cognisant of what ‘level of escalation’ a conflict is at, and manage it appropriately in a timely manner
  • The method of resolving the conflict is key. A facilitator that is perceived as unbiased by both parties and is experienced in the process management of resolving conflict, a neutral setting with key parties involved vs large forums
  • Managers need to hold people accountable to their agreements

I have touched just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the psychology of human behaviour in my analysis of this case study but it’s a fascinating topic, and one that can make a huge difference to longterm business success.