In any business, there will be conflict, period. As a leader, you must deal with conflict, either your own or that of your employees, rather than ignore it. In a family-owned business, there is a heightened potential for conflict, especially between family members working in the business. In any conflict — but especially between family members — the presenting issue is rarely the real cause of the fight. Rather, it is what happened months, years, or decades ago in the family or organizational system that triggers the upset. And the upset or reaction is usually out of proportion to the offence of the moment.
A company is a human system much like a family, except not everyone is related. Just as intractable conflict can sever loving ties within a family, causing divorce or estrangement, so can poorly managed conflict tear apart the fabric of a company. The effectiveness of your ability to manage conflict within your company is directly related to the profitability of your company. It’s simple – poorly managed or out-of-control conflict equals lower profits. This is because the emotional tone of a workplace is a key determinant of the culture of your company.
Emotional tone is set at the top. Leaders in every company must deal with conflict between employees before it escalates. If conflict is not managed, you can expect low morale, low employee engagement, reduced productivity, and high attrition of key employees. And, if leaders are themselves involved in conflict or display emotional volatility, expect heightened negative consequences.
As an executive coach, I tell my clients they can lose their temper and express their anger only once a year – and then only if they are highly provoked. More frequent emotional outbursts from the boss create an unstable working environment. All eyes are on the leaders, just as a small child watches his or her parents for emotional queues on how to react. My colleague, Susan Steinbrecher of Steinbrecher & Associates, says that leaders are like goldfish in a glass bowl – every move is visible and magnified to the viewers. If you lose your temper often, you will create a “tall tulip” environment in which no employee
wants to lose their heads, figuratively, by standing out or taking a risk. You will teach helplessness and mediocrity to your employees as they cower in fear of attracting the boss’ anger.
First rule: learn to manage your own conflict and anger. Are you facing a volatile situation? Walk away from it, count to ten and/or sleep on it. In the morning, cool heads will prevail and you’ll be able to handle the situation without saying or doing something you regret. Engage an executive coach who will help you examine the roots of and triggers for your anger and design strategies to defuse it.
Then, if you observe conflict among workers, know that it is your duty to help them understand and work around it. Invite the offending parties into your office and ask each person to do the following:
Lastly, as a leader, create a work environment in which people assume benign intent. That means that when a coworker irritates you, you don’t jump to a conclusion that they are out to get you, but that there is a reasonable explanation for the irritating behavior. A leader must model this behavior by checking facts, for example, before holding an employee accountable. A good way to do this is to ask the employee for their perspective on what happened. For example, a worker delivers a report a day past the deadline. Rather than assuming anything, the wise manager approaches the worker and asks why the report was completed today rather than yesterday. You might find that you never communicated a deadline, so the employee thought she was doing fine.
Conflict is inevitable, but decreased productivity due to conflict is not inevitable if you handle it well!
Kristin Robertson, CEO of Brio Leadership, is dedicated to increasing the number of employees who are excited to go to work on Monday mornings. Services include executive coaching, leadership development classes and company culture consulting. Don’t forget to get a copy of Kristin Robertson’s new book, Your Company Culture Ecosystem, available on Amazon.
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