How Coaching Helps When Top Executives Have Conflict

by | Jun 20, 2024 | Executive Coaching

No matter how brilliant your leadership team is, conflict will inevitably arise among these super-smart, ambitious, opinionated people. Over time, you notice that two of them just aren’t clicking. Maybe this executive conflict is out in the open, or maybe the tell is how they avoid each other.

However this conflict manifests, you can’t let it linger. But you’re struggling to manage this conflict amid all your other duties, and you don’t want to apply quick fixes that overlook the root cause. If this sounds like your situation, it’s a good time to bring in a coach who can help these executives figure out more productive ways of working together so they can deliver better results — for themselves and the entire executive leadership team.

Defining Healthy vs. Unhealthy Conflict

Let’s start by normalizing conflict. It’s part of being human. There’s a real skill in being able to navigate conflict well. The best executive team members evolve their conflict management skills throughout their career while adapting to each situation’s unique characteristics.

A better way to think about this issue is in terms of healthy conflict and unhealthy conflict. Here are some of the key differences between the two. 

Healthy Conflict: A Catalyst for Growth

Healthy conflict is characterized by open communication and constructive debate. Differing opinions are valued, and executive team members are curious about each other’s perspective and point of view. When two executive leaders are engaged in healthy conflict, they’re motivated by shared goals, not by personal agendas. 

Healthy conflict helps surface great ideas and pushes executive teams to pursue better decisions, rather than whatever comes to mind first or is easiest. As 3COze Inc. co-founder Liane Davey has noted, “Conflict is uncomfortable, but it is the source of true innovation, and also a critical process in identifying and mitigating risks.” 

Consider a chief financial officer and chief revenue officer. Both want the company to grow and succeed, but the CFO might default to risk mitigation in circumstances where the CRO focuses on revenue opportunities. Both perspectives are necessary. While these execs might come into conflict occasionally, they can leverage that friction. They can be gut checks for each other’s planning, for instance. Or they can act as powerful allies and advocates — provided they see productive conflict as a part of the road to success.

In situations with healthy conflict dynamics, both leaders are willing to listen, understand and consider each other’s perspectives. This not only helps in reaching a consensus but also strengthens their professional relationship by building mutual respect and trust.

Unhealthy Conflict: A Roadblock to Progress

Conversely, unhealthy conflict between two executives is often marked by a breakdown in communication and an escalation of personal attacks. For instance, if one executive feels consistently undermined or overshadowed, they might feel resentment, even hostility. While this can result in open verbal conflict, you might also see passive-aggressive behaviors, such as withholding information or talking behind the other person’s back. 

These unhealthy dynamics are bad for the personal working relationship, but they’re also bad for these executives’ reports, who will likely adopt these same counterproductive attitudes and behaviors. Suddenly, this isolated conflict in the C-suite is causing strife several levels down and derailing strategic initiatives. 

In the worst-case scenario, the focus shifts from organizational goals to personal vendettas, making it difficult for the leadership team to function effectively.

Understanding the Root Causes of Conflict Among Executives

In a manufacturing plant, leaders look for the root cause of a production problem so they can apply one fix that lasts. The same goes for conflict among your top executives. Here are some of the root causes an executive coach might investigate.

Competition for Resources and Authority

One of the primary catalysts for conflict within executive teams is ‌competition for limited resources. This competition can be for tangible resources like budget and personnel, but it also encompasses intangibles such as influence and decision-making authority. 

This competition can feel particularly one-sided when one executive team member leads a revenue-producing function and the other top executive leads an enabling function, such as marketing or HR. These functions’ performance is often funded at different levels, rewarded differently, and involve different ways of working.

The power dynamics in this scenario can be really difficult. Executives can find themselves at odds when their goals and resource needs clash, leading to conflicts that can stall decision-making processes.

Differing Leadership Styles 

Executives often bring diverse backgrounds and leadership styles to the table. While valuable, these differences can contribute to misunderstandings and conflict when leadership styles clash or when leaders aren’t aligned. 

Sometimes, these manifest in basic psychological approaches. What is the executive’s relationship to hierarchy? Do they believe in it, or does it bother them? How do they prefer to engage in conflict — and how was it modeled for them growing up or earlier in their career? When executives approach these issues differently, they can struggle to align on leadership mindset — and that affects how they view goals.

Personal Biases and the Reticular Activating System

Another root cause of conflict is biological. We have something in our brains called the reticular activating system, which scans our environment for threats — and it can be where our unconscious bias forms. 

Let’s say that I’ve decided that my executive teammate is out to get me. My reticular activating system will look for evidence to support this thesis, and so every interaction with my colleague is an exercise in collecting incriminating data — whether I’m conscious of it or not. 

These brain-activated personal biases significantly affect how conflicts arise and persist within teams. The reticular activating system filters information based on our expectations and biases, potentially amplifying perceived threats or slights among team members. This biological response can exacerbate conflicts, sometimes making executives react defensively or aggressively without cause.

Assumptions and Unspoken Expectations 

Not all conflict is out in the open. When executives don’t clearly communicate their expectations or concerns, they substitute assumptions and misinterpretations. Now, they’re operating with faulty information — and they’re in a high-pressure, high-stakes environment where every decision is magnified. Leadership team structures that create silos or unclear authority lines can exacerbate these issues, leading to power struggles and conflicts over decision-making authority.

For some pairs of executives, misunderstandings based on background, lived experience or culture can also lead to conflict. Two executives who bring different expectations, sensitivities and communication styles can find themselves in unproductive conflict unless they’re conscious of these differences and seek to navigate them. 

Resolving One-On-One Conflict Through Executive Coaching 

Leadership teams must act as a unit to be successful. When two executives aren’t aligned because of an unresolved, unproductive conflict, they jeopardize the entire team’s chances of success. 

CEOs can’t always resolve these differences alone. They might not even be aware of the conflict bubbling beneath the surface. For these reasons and more, executive coaches can step in to help top executives work through their conflict and refocus on the leadership team’s purpose and strategy

Here are some ways executive coaching can effectively address and resolve one-on-one conflicts:

Identifying Root Causes of Conflict

Executive coaches have a few ways to identify root causes. They might start with private, one-on-one sessions where each leader is encouraged to express their perspectives and concerns. Coaches can use targeted questions to uncover deeper issues, such as disagreements over business strategies or interpersonal tensions. 

Once those root causes are identified, the coach can work with both parties to find a path forward. While these problems can still be thorny to solve, all parties now have a better understanding of what’s driving the wedge between them.

Facilitating Open Communication and Mutual Respect

So many conflicts revolve around poor or absent communication. Executive coaches can work with the executive team members to better understand their communication styles and where they are doing well or falling short. 

If the executive feels aggrieved, they can work through these feelings and start to seek the opportunity rather than only feel like a victim. The executive team members in conflict also need to develop a sense of acceptance. They can only control their actions and reactions — not the other person’s reactions. 

From there, coaches can bring both parties together in a safe environment to share their viewpoints, such as frustration with a slow process, feelings of being undermined or unappreciated, concerns over insufficient resources or whatever the issues are. During these conversations, the executive coach can help each party give honest feedback, thank the other person for their candor and give some space and grace to absorb that feedback.

Both parties likely have legitimate concerns. Coaches help them recognize the validity of each other’s perspectives and the potential benefits of diverse approaches. This understanding is crucial for moving beyond conflict and working collaboratively toward common goals.

Creating Actionable Plans for Conflict Resolution

Being in conflict is uncomfortable. But too often, people don’t know how to get out of the conflict, even when they’re seasoned executives who might even be skillful conflict managers with their teams. 

Executive coaches can help leaders in conflict not only identify and discuss their challenges, but then devise a plan to resolve them productively. The key is actionable plans that help both leaders feel heard, validated and equipped to move forward. This might involve agreeing on specific communication protocols or setting certain boundaries around the relationship.

Sometimes, the situation is too raw to delve immediately into better communication or getting to know each other on a personal level. In these situations, the executive coach might focus on deliverables. Presumably, both executives want to succeed and drive the company’s success. That shared pursuit of winning can be how they bond — the rest can come later. 

Whatever the plan, executive coaching requires that each leader make certain commitments to resolve the conflict. Coaches can provide ongoing support to help leaders hold themselves accountable for changing their outlook and behaviors. 

Deepening Relationships Without Waiting for Conflict

Conflict doesn’t have to be the catalyst for better relationships inside your leadership team. Every interaction is an opportunity for top executives to practice healthy interpersonal relationship dynamics. 

The key is being intentional. As Jason Lauritsen told me on the Life + Leadership podcast, “If you want a better relationship with other human beings, you have to invest time in being with them. No shortcut, no hack, no way around it.”

Regular, Open Communication

Establishing regular communication channels is fundamental. This doesn’t just mean scheduling meetings when issues arise, but having consistent check-ins that allow leaders to share successes, concerns, and feedback in a structured yet open manner. These sessions provide a platform for transparency and continuous dialogue, preventing misunderstandings and the build-up of unspoken grievances.

Shared Experiences

Trust is the cornerstone of any strong relationship, and it takes time to develop. One way executives can do this is by literally spending time together. Maybe it’s extra time before or after a meeting to chat. Maybe it’s a formal project that combines the skills and acumen of their functions. Or maybe it’s quality time outside work with shared interests, such as the arts, cycling or fellowship as parents. 

By spending time together, the executives can see each other’s work style firsthand, appreciate each other’s strengths, and learn how to support one another in achieving common objectives.

Assessments and Feedback Mechanisms

Incorporating tools like DISC, the Hogan Assessment, Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument and other tools can provide valuable insights into understanding each leader’s psychology and where conflict arises. Once we understand our nature under conflict, we can work with it 

Coaches use assessments for many reasons, including helping executive team members better understand themselves and deal with high-stress conflict situations. As adults, we can choose to be different in how we react and respond. And so an assessment is a great foundation for gaining the insight and language needed to shift behaviors.

Continuous Professional Growth

CEOs and other top leaders today are expected to practice emotional intelligence, to be skillful leaders who can navigate ambiguity, volatility and conflict. To do this well, we must dedicate ourselves to lifelong personal and professional growth. 

We’re less likely to be in sustained conflict and more likely to resolve it productively when we’re open to self-reflection, accepting of feedback and consistently building in relationship with the people around us. When we approach work and our peer relationships with a growth mindset, the inevitable conflicts become opportunities to do better and be better — together. 

Are you looking to get more out of your executive team’s growth and development? Learn more about Bright Arrow Coaching’s individualized executive coaching services that use real-world situations as catalysts for professional growth.

Life + Leadership with Tegan Trovato podcast cover

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