Wayne is an accomplished and overburdened senior executive who hates dealing with his direct reports’ conflicts. He once told me that he’d rather have a spike driven into his eye than listen to them complain about each other.

But leaders like Wayne often fail to realize that what appear to be interpersonal conflicts are often just the visible symptoms of deeper, more strategic problems. After all, people generally want to get along with each other. And most of us don’t go to bed plotting how to annoy our colleagues.

In fact, most conflict occurs when well-intentioned people inadvertently frustrate each other from achieving their objectives.  When this happens we end up blaming people rather than looking at underlying causes.

As the President of a consumer products company, Wayne was confronted with this situation. His company was implementing an aggressive strategy to derive 50% of profit from new products within five-years. During this time, the national sales force headcount remained relatively flat while a cadre of new brand managers was hired to manage the expanding product portfolio.

But the two groups clashed: regional sales managers criticized brand managers as out of touch with local markets. And they accused them of acting with a level of arrogance that exceeded even their usual cockiness. The marketers grumbled about the sloppiness of new product launches in the field. They complained that regional managers only cared about their personal turf and that they rarely considered the bigger picture.

The irony (to me at least) was that Wayne was complaining to me about both departments. When I suggested that he was acting similarly to his errant vice presidents, Wayne reluctantly decided to act.  He scheduled a meeting with his key lieutenants to, as he said, “clear the air.” What he got was something else.

Conflict as a leverage point

I facilitated the meeting in which the groups described their perceptions of each other and took turns validating what they believed was accurate. The sales force was proud to be seen as strong in distributor relationships. But they also admitted their weakness in managing budgets, and being overly protective of their territory. And while the marketing group was seen as strategic, and quite creative, they began to see how they could be viewed as intrusive and over-demanding.

While the “truth” stung, it also helped reduce the tension so they could focus on the business. The group realized that not getting along related more to the challenges of keeping up with unprecedented growth. Perhaps more importantly, they recognized that their go-to-market strategy was flawed.

For instance, they acknowledged a trend toward smaller brands with shorter life cycles. And new product introductions needed local more than nationally driven promotions. Finally, they realized the need for more specialization in the sales force, rather than simply put “more feet on the street.”

Thus a meeting that began as a chance to “clear the air,” ended as a platform to address strategic challenges. In the weeks that followed, joint task forces recommended how the company could re-invent how it launched, marketed and even discontinued products, shifting from an “army” to a “special forces” approach.

On reflection, Wayne realized that the conflict between Marketing and Sales was due to good people trying to succeed when their goals and resources were neither aligned nor up-to-date. Their struggles subsided when the new strategy was implemented, not the other way around.

If you are a senior executive, or even a first line supervisor wrestling with others’ conflict, consider what Wayne learned:

  •  Conflict is not a bad thing: Companies are designed with checks and balances that lead to tension. Power needs to be balanced between departments and this entails some friction.
  • Do something, now: When the natural tension between departments deteriorates to blaming, someone needs to intervene. The longer it goes the harder it is to bring antagonists together. And, customers do notice.
  • Don’t personalize conflict: While it is sometimes hard to not take sides, unhealthy conflict is an indicator that something more systemic or strategic is out of kilter. Bring antagonists together to work out their grievances so they can see that often, it’s not about them; it’s about the business.
  • Start with perceptions, end with reality: Most conflicts play out indirectly; people usually don’t accuse each other of incompetence or hidden agendas to each other’s faces. Help antagonists share perceptions directly and validate those perceptions. Only then will people feel free enough to focus on the business, which should be your objective in the first place.
  • © Robert Ponzoni -ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 2008