How Unmanaged Conflict in Leadership Affects Your Workforce

by | Jun 25, 2024 | Executive Coaching

One of the first lessons leaders learn is that everyone watches what you say, what you do and how you express yourself. And, to some degree, your people will internalize and emulate your actions and words. So when conflict in the leadership team occurs, employees notice. They’re monitoring how this conflict affects them — and which side they should pick.

Unhealthy conflict between senior executives is troubling because it can spread widely, affecting the relationships of entire teams and functions. And with 71% of CEOs surveyed by Heidrick & Struggles connecting culture to financial performance, a bad culture is bad for business. 

CEOs and C-suite leaders can struggle to resolve these conflicts alone, while 57% of leaders surveyed by Robin Pou lack confidence in their conflict management leadership skills. Fortunately, executive coaching can help warring leadership team members work through their conflict while gaining tools to better manage differences going forward. 

Let’s look at what causes conflict in leadership, how this hurts their teams and functions, and how executive coaching helps resolve executive conflict.

What Conflict Between Top Leaders Looks Like

Conflict should be expected in high-stakes environments where diverse personalities and strong opinions converge. As organizational leaders, we want our executives to disagree, challenge and find productive compromises that are best for the business. The question shouldn’t be about preventing all conflict but about how to resolve negative conflict in leadership teams. Unresolved conflict festers and becomes toxic, feeding on itself to create more negative behaviors and even less trust.

Unhealthy conflict between two members of the CEO’s leadership team can be overt or subtle, impacting not just the executives involved but the entire organizational structure. Here are just a few ways this conflict shows up.

Visible Disagreements That Aren’t Productive

At the most basic level, conflict between top leaders shows up in outright, public disagreement on matters. While open debate in good faith can be helpful, these disagreements are anything but. They become a bigger problem when left unresolved, involve personal attacks or are used to delay or thwart decisions rather than improve outcomes.

Undermining and Power Plays

A more subtle form of executive conflict occurs when an executive undercuts another by badmouthing them to others. Other forms of this behavior include withholding information, providing misleading data or failing to uphold commitments that impact shared deliverables. Such actions often stem from underlying power struggles between the two leaders.

Communication Breakdowns

When two executives communicate poorly or refuse to communicate and share information, they contribute to silos. That can easily spread throughout the organization, as those leaders’ reports also reduce their communication with each other. 

Communication breakdowns can also occur when two executives hold on to perceived slights rather than talking through their concerns. Their communication, when it does occur, can devolve into emotional responses such as frustration, resentment or hostility. 

How Leadership Conflict Manifests Throughout the Organization

When two leadership team members are in conflict, everyone else is affected. Productivity and decision-making are hampered. Employees walk on eggshells or feel they have to choose sides. Worse still, they might begin to model these negative behaviors, creating additional conflict at multiple levels of the organization. 

Less Communication and Transparency

When two C-suite members are in conflict, they may stop sharing information with each other — and perhaps anyone on the other leader’s team. This siloing and lack of transparency can have immediate effects on decision-making, speed of action and productivity. Rumors and hearsay replace reliable information.

Over time, this lack of communication and transparency can be copied by lower levels of management and even line employees, further eroding trust, collaboration and productivity throughout the organization.

Modeling Bad Behavior

Employees take cues from their leaders and look to model their behavior and attitude, even if subconsciously. When top executives engage in open conflict, undermine each other, or refuse to collaborate, they signal to their employees that this is acceptable, even recommended. 

This modeling can lead to a culture where conflict is handled poorly, and where aggressive or passive-aggressive behaviors become the norm. Instead of employees from different functions approaching work with an enterprise mindset, they view each other as rivals or even enemies. They become distracted from fulfilling the organization’s mission and serving customers because they’re watching — and reacting to — what their leaders are doing.

Worsened Team Dynamics

The direct reports of leaders who are caught in the crossfire can suffer the most. They might feel compelled to mediate the conflict without the positional authority or resources to do so effectively. They might feel like they have to take sides. Collaborating with the other leader becomes an affront rather than a good way to do business 

This precarious position can lead to increased stress and diminished job satisfaction. Moreover, the strain experienced by these team leaders inevitably impacts their teams’ productivity and morale.

Stalled Innovation and Decision-Making

Conflict at the leadership level can stall key decisions, with companies reacting too late to changing conditions or missing opportunities to innovate or take market share. The decisions that do get made can suffer, too. For example, if the leadership team reflexively chooses compromise to avoid conflict rather than working through difficult issues, they’ll can make short-sighted choices that harm the business over time 

Because employees tend to model their leaders’ behaviors, this high-level conflict influences managers at all levels to also delay or second-guess decisions. Ultimately, companies create a risk-averse culture where everyone is reluctant to act without explicit permission.

Toxic Work Environments

Perhaps the most damaging effect of unresolved leadership conflict is the development of a toxic work environment characterized by lack of trust, poor communication and an every-person-for-themselves mentality. 

In such climates, employee engagement drops, talent turnover increases, and the organization’s reputation can suffer. 

How Executive Coaching Can Help Leaders Move Forward

When you have two leaders in unresolved and unhealthy conflict, it’s not necessarily because they’re bad people or bad leaders. They might be beloved by their teams — and that’s precisely why the conflict needs to be addressed. Those employees want to do their best, but they can’t when their leadership isn’t operating effectively.

Executive coaching engagements can help the parties involved work through their issues. These engagements might start with private sessions, where the coach elicits key information while providing a safe space for opening up. But eventually, the coach will bring the executives together to help them, together, find a path forward. 

The goal isn’t to prevent all conflict or disagreement among top executives. Rather, the coach can help these leaders develop the emotional intelligence to better navigate conflict. Coaches can offer tools and best practices for conflict management and conflict resolution in leadership teams. 

The other important aspect where an executive coach can help two leaders in conflict is with communicating their progress to their employees. While the executives might have improved their relationship, those teams might still be in conflict or feel like they need to take sides. For the organization as a whole to thrive, the executives must be aligned and they must model that to their teams, giving them permission to become more aligned, communicative and collaborative.

The Execs Who Reconciled in Public

I once worked with two executives, one in charge of sales and the other in charge of delivering on those sales. Their roles created a symbiotic relationship. Neither function could truly succeed without the other. These were esteemed, successful leaders who were highly popular with their teams. 

However, their personal and professional relationship was highly dysfunctional. They openly disliked each other. And both of them were miserable because they couldn’t avoid each other. They spent half the day in meetings and other interactions together, wasting energy in conflict and influencing their teams to be in conflict, too. 

The good news? Both executives hated the status quo and wanted to make things better. We began the executive coaching engagement with private sessions to build trust. We used active listening to understand ‌each leader’s point of view regarding the relationship problems. That helped us diagnose the key issues cited by both leaders. We also separately asked each executive whether they were willing to make changes and what those changes might look like.

We then brought the executives together for open discussions about forgiveness, trust-building and starting fresh. Both executives committed to behaving differently, applying conflict resolution skills and collaborating for the benefit of their teams. 

The coaching was successful for numerous reasons, starting with each executive’s willingness to change. But importantly, these leaders went public with their relationship reset. By sharing the work they were doing to improve their relationship, they gave permission to employees to also examine their behaviors and feelings, to reset their relationships throughout the organization. 

Not only did these executives drive increased business performance by improving their dynamic, they also made work a better place to be both for themselves and for their people.

Help Your Top Leaders Set the Right Example

Conflict in leadership teams is a prime example of how executive coaching isn’t just about helping your top executives. Coaching engagements are powerful ways to help two leaders identify the root causes of their conflict and better manage and resolve their differences. But the potentially bigger benefit of this work is in helping their reports and their functions feel safe, communicate more intentionally and build deeper working relationships with each other.

Remember that employees are always watching. How leadership team members treat each other and manage conflict sends a strong message about the organization’s desired culture. The choice is yours: Healthy dynamics and productive conflict, or infighting and lingering conflict that trickles down throughout the enterprise.

Want to learn more about the ways one-on-one leadership coaching can help your leadership team members thrive? Learn more about Bright Arrow Coaching’s approach to executive coaching.

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