Use Conflict to Clarify Strategy

(first appeared in bizlife magazine, volume 15, number 12, December 2003)

Let’s say you are the senior executive of a company. And let’s say that two key managers who work for you aren’t getting along. They avoid each other. They blame each other. And all of a sudden their direct reports are doing the same thing: now you have two departments that are tearing each other down rather than collaborating. What would you do? (Circle one of the choices below.)

a. Since conflict is inevitable and people don’t have to be friends to get the job done, you tell the antagonists to “get along” and see what they do.

b. Since harmony is important, you get both groups together for some “team building.” Perhaps you sponsor a golf outing, or some other social activity where people can let their hair down and “kiss and make up.”

c. Since you need to be decisive, you provide visible support to the executive you believe has a stronger case. Perhaps you even replace the “weaker” manager.

d. Since you suspect that their conflict may indicate a deeper problem, you try to discover what is driving their antagonism.

While there may be virtues to selecting any of these responses, the most appropriate, but least selected option is “d.” Why? First, most of us don’t like the messiness of dealing with conflict, so it’s easy to avoid. As one executive hopefully said, “Our conflicts would be easy to resolve once we get a bounce in our stock price.” Second, many of us believe we don’t have the skills to mediate when other people are at odds. Otherwise, we would have chosen another career path, like marriage counselor. Finally, why worry when internal conflicts aren’t visible to customers, right?

Wrong. What executives often fail to realize is that interpersonal conflict is merely the most visible symptom of deeper, more strategic issues. After all, most people do want to get along with each other. And other than the rare “bad seed,” nobody purposely sets out to create toxic relationships. Thus, most conflicts occur when well-intentioned people inadvertently frustrate each other from achieving their objectives.  When this happens we end up blaming people rather than looking at the underlying causes.

Wayne, the President of a consumer products company, had this concern. The company was on its way to successfully implementing its aggressive strategy to derive 50% of profit from new products within a five year period. Acquisitions and internal new product development fueled an unprecedented increase in brands and SKU’s. During this time, the national Sales force headcount remained relatively flat while the Marketing Department headcount grew, as new brand managers were hired to manage the expanding product portfolio.

At a large sales conference, Wayne heard regional managers complain emphatically about their counterparts in Marketing. It seemed that brand managers were out of touch with local markets, not supporting brands with budget dollars, and acting with a level of arrogance that exceeded their usual cockiness.

Wayne had been around a long time, and had seen plenty of “wars” between the two groups. But he had thought things were going fine; despite the coolness he noticed during meetings with the VP’s of Sales and Marketing, results were strong. But when Wayne met with the VP of Marketing, he also got an earful about the Sales Department.

Rather than watch from the sidelines while the two departments fought it out, Wayne shifted his approach. He pulled together the two vice presidents and their key lieutenants into a meeting in order to, as he said, “pull the rock from out of our shoe.”

What he got was something else.

During the meeting the two groups described their perceptions of each other and validated what they believed was accurate. For instance, the Sales force agreed they were energetic, knowledgeable about their markets, and strong in distributor relationships. But they also admitted their weakness in managing brand budgets, unfocused in execution after product launches, and territorial. And while the Marketing group was seen as strategic, with strong research and creative skills, they were also intrusive, over-demanding with last minute requests, and not effective at tactical point-of-sale marketing.

While the “truth” stung, it also freed the managers from having to defend themselves with each other, which enabled them to de-personalize the conflict and focus on the business. Both groups realized that people not getting along was due to the fact that the commercial growth of the business had outstripped their capacity to manage that growth. This helped Wayne see that he needed to hire more sales people, and he said so. But surprisingly, both groups disagreed. They said it wasn’t the number of people that needed to increase, but that the marketplace was changing in a fundamental way and they weren’t adapting fast enough.

For instance, marketing new consumer products in their industry was requiring more word-of-mouth local promotion rather than nationally driven advertising. Further, there was a trend toward smaller brands with shorter life-cycles; they couldn’t rely on the possibility of a new “mega-brand” any more. Finally, they realized that they needed more specialization in the sales force rather than simply put “more feet on the street.”

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

Their focus on the business rather than on their interpersonal conflict was key to the Company’s staying ahead of the competitive curve. Wayne realized that the tension between Marketing and Sales was due to good people trying to succeed when their strategy, goals and resources were out of alignment with the market and with each other. Their interpersonal conflicts 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 two key direct reports in conflict, consider what Wayne learned:

Conflict is inevitable and not a bad thing: Companies are designed with checks and balances that lead to tension. Without these checks and balances departments would maximize their own results at the expense of the enterprise. For instance, selling more than you manufacture leads to poor quality and customer service; building more than you sell leads to high inventories and lower profits. Power needs to be balanced between key departments and friction is usually the mechanism for this balance.

Do something, now: When the natural tension between departments deteriorates to blaming and avoidance, someone needs to intervene. The longer you let it go the harder it will be to bring the antagonists together. And, customers do notice.

Don’t personalize conflict: While it is sometimes hard to not take sides, negative conflict is a leading indicator that something more systemic or strategic is out of kilter. Bringing antagonists together to work on the conflict can yield surprisingly positive benefits, but they need to see it’s not just about them, it’s about the business.

Start with perceptions, end with reality: Most negative conflicts are played out indirectly; people usually don’t accuse each other of incompetence or hidden agendas to each other’s faces. It’s important to get antagonists to share perceptions directly and to validate those perceptions. Only then will they feel free enough to focus on strategic conversations about the business, which should be your objective in the first place.