Resolving Conflict on the Management Team: Why it Starts and How to Fix It

Resolving Conflict on the Management Team: Why it Starts and How to Fix It

Not long ago, InterimExecs was approached by a human resources professional who was concerned about the level of conflict among the members of the management team. The clashes had reached a point where they were, she said, ready to kill one another.

That got us thinking: Is conflict simply the nature of the beast these days?

Turns out the answer is no, according to Alicia Fortinberry and Bob Murray. Their company, Fortinberry Murray, is “committed to arming people and businesses with the knowledge and practical skills to build the organizations, communities, families and relationships that are compatible with our ‘design specs’ and enable people to be healthy and fulfilled.”

InterimExecs CEO Robert Jordan sat down with the duo to talk about conflict on management teams and how to handle it. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Q. Does the stress of leading a company lead inevitably to discord among members of the leadership team?

A. When the management team is ready to kill one another, it means that the culture of the team is not right. It’s not human. In other words, they’re not creating a culture that enables collaboration. What’s going on in that company, essentially, is that the culture is wrong.

Q. So, how does a management team become more human and create a culture that is right?

We have collaboration because we have found common ground with each other because we like each other and we have fun working together. You have sufficient commonalities for the culture to develop. And once the culture develops, you have mutual support within the team to preserve the culture.

The work that needs to be done is on getting a ‘behavioral charter’ within the company where the people agree to abide by certain behaviors and certain ways of interacting with each other. Team members agree that they will have certain company rituals, such as getting together once a week for a lunch or a dinner or on a Zoom or whatever it is. And these are not business roles. These are cultural roles.

And once you’ve got agreement on that you can start to resolve any of the problems that are there within the context of the culture.

Q. How does a company develop that type of collaborative culture?

A. The CEO sets the tone of the culture. Under stress, you see these cracks. First, there are fissures. And then under stress, they get larger. That’s why you’ve got to create a foundation early on and get people focused on the accepted relational behaviors between them.

Q. What kind of “relational behaviors” are most important in the work environment?

A. They can be very basic – small things such as saying ‘good morning’ to one another each day.

And you’ve got to keep working on those and refreshing them and making sure that the CEO and the leaders display their appreciation of truly collaborative interactions and foster them for when the stresses come.

If you get to the point where parts of the leadership team want to murder other parts, you can look back and see the things that were done wrong and the opportunities that were missed to build collaboration and address conflict.

And I would bet that the top leadership was in some way insecure and felt that they could gain from those fissures to make their position stronger. Or there were stakeholders outside of the team – maybe the families or the shareholders — whom the leaders were trying to please. And by doing that, they destroyed the culture of the organization.

Q. Once the culture is destroyed, is there hope of resolving conflict in the workplace? 

A. Yes, we’ve seen this quite often, but there has to be a willingness to sit down and work out between all of them a set of behaviors which they’re going to abide by going forward.

It’s rather like a hunter-gatherer tribe. The tribe has a set of rules, roles, and rituals they all have to adhere to. And if you don’t adhere to them, it means that you’re excluded from the tribe.

In the company, if you don’t adhere to these behaviors, what you’re saying is, ‘I don’t want to be a member of this tribe anymore.’ And the rest of them will say, ‘OK, fine, then you’re not a member of the tribe anymore.’

The top leaders have to be tough. Once the agreement has been reached, it has to be enforced.

Q. So the modern corporation is really no better than a tribe from the dawn of humanity? This is who we are: We’re tribal?

A. That’s right. Because this is our DNA and we can’t get out of our DNA.

Q. What is the motivation for a management team to fix its dysfunction?

A. If we were to go back and say, ‘OK, how can we structure our relationships in a way that’s more human?’ it would lead to more collaboration, which leads, therefore, to better productivity.

So instead of having a top-down management style, you have a more collaborative management style, a more integrative management style that is transformational rather than transactional.

It requires restructuring the management team and the way they behave toward each other, and restructuring the management team itself.

Q. Where does that start?

It starts with the CEO. The important thing is the day-to-day, grinding it out.

Very few organizations actually do that. They outsource it to HR or they outsource it to us and that’s not the way it has to work. We can help, but if the company leaders don’t focus on that, you get a management team that wants to kill each other.

Q. How do you build relationships amid that kind of dysfunction?

Culture is very largely based upon commonality. The more we have in common, the more likely it is that we feel like we’re part of the same tribe. You and I both have gray hair; we’re part of the tribe that has gray hair. We both have blue eyes. That means that we’re part of the tribe that has blue eyes. We’re part of the tribe that are consultants to other companies.

So there’s a whole range of commonalities we have, which means it’s possible we could collaborate without too much difficulty because we’re part of the same tribe.

Q. I think part of the problem, at least in the U.S. is that so much of that has fallen away. Fewer people are involved in a church. Fewer people are members of Elks Clubs. All we have is identification with a political party. Even the work tribe is rapidly disappearing thanks to remote work and gig work.

A. That’s right. When we got rid of the church and a whole range of other ways in which we interacted with each other, all that was left was work. Now we’re dismantling the work tribe as fast as we can.

Rather than asking, ‘How do we work together and support each other so we can bring together our different strengths, rather than getting into the habit of looking for and building on commonality, we are being taught from a very early age to build on difference. And that’s when you want to kill each other because you’re all competing.

We need to build the commonality that would make you say, ‘Sitting down with you guys for a sandwich is so pleasing to me. Why would I want to kill you?’

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