Handling Destructive Conflict

There’s healthy conflict—and then there’s the other kind. CEOs need to know when a storm is brewing so they can quickly de-escalate before lasting damage is done.

Perhaps because of my own insecurities at the time, I began my adult life thinking that the term “criticism” had negative connotations. I later learned, and willingly accepted, that there can be positive criticism as well. The opposite was true as I embraced the concept of “healthy conflict,” concluding that an open exchange of divergent ideas almost always led to better decision making.

And then came the wakeup call: my introduction to destructive conflict and its ability to tear an organization apart if left unchecked. No organization is immune; we’re all entitled to our share of rogues. It is not a behavior that is always visible and, if it were, we likely would have avoided hiring any person where a background check pointed in that direction. When it does surface, most of us are caught off guard, lacking an abundance of experience and skills to deal with it; as executives, we still own the outcome.

Failure to confront or tolerating and/or enabling is equivalent to trait approval and when that happens, the enterprise’s value system quickly erodes. A vivid case study from my personal experience:

A very successful third generation, high technology manufacturing company was an exciting place to work. The CEO was dynamic, technically savvy and a charismatic leader. Many of the middle management team had joined the company fresh out of college and had no thoughts of looking for greener pastures. The CEO’s wife, well educated (and an officer/shareholder) decided she wanted to join the ride. An office was set aside for her and she started a pattern of working four to six hours a day, usually four days a week. I was retained about a year after this journey began.

Though my purpose was to evaluate and then improve the company’s selling process it was impossible for me to ignore the destructive conflict that had been ‘birthed’ with the arrival of the CEO’s wife. She had a senior title, a big office, perceived authority, limited knowledge of the business and no responsibility. She spent her days destructively communicating to individuals in management. “How could you possibly have…?” “Why didn’t you…?” “Wasn’t it obvious to you…?” “Don’t you realize…?” “Do you know how much this will cost us…?” And so on. Her behavior could hardly be viewed as healthy conflict. It was brutal—and the CEO/husband turned his head. Management people withdrew, unwilling to show initiative anymore, and some reached out to me hoping for my help in an exit strategy.

My assessment of the selling process had cast a wider net, exposing additional areas for improvement and I sat with the CEO strongly suggesting he do some “customer-focused restructuring.” He willingly agreed, especially with my proposal that his wife be given specific responsibility for three functional areas; oddly, she was enthusiastic about the new assignment as well. She quit in less than four months after the change. Being held accountable was not as fulfilling as wreaking the havoc provoked by her destructive conflict.

Candidly, the solution was opportunistic—but it worked. A few more remedies to consider, all of which are likely to have their share of confrontation:

• Peer review: This is not about strength in numbers but rather shared perceptions. In my experience, I have found that some individuals simply were unwilling to accept my feedback alone.

• A traditional 360 followed by a candid discussion as to a willingness to change.

• Counseling and/or professional coaching: when I have used this option it was always with the condition that the counselor or coach could “pull the plug.” If their assessment was that the employee had no sincere interest in changing, then:

• Outplacement or termination.

Some of us are elected to boards and expected to do the right thing; others of us are hired as executives to do the same. Failing to confront destructive conflict emboldens others to act the same while demotivating many more. Far more than once in my career words similar to these have been whispered to me: “We were hoping you would do something about that.”

Lesson learned.

Fred Engelfried
Fred Engelfried is Director/Chair of North Coast Holdings, Inc. and its subsidiary Lewis Tree Service, Inc. He has been a member of the board of directors of Lewis for over 20 years, and for 10 years prior to that worked with the company intermittently in various consulting capacities. He also is President of Market Sense Inc., a participative management firm that has served more than 100 regional clients over 35 years.