Common Mistakes That CEOs Make: Avoiding Conflict

The fact is that most of the biggest catastrophes that we’ve witnessed rarely come from information that is secret or hidden. It comes from information that is freely available and out there, but that we are willfully blind to, because we can’t handle, don’t want to handle, the conflict that it provokes. But when we dare to break that silence, or when we dare to see, and we create conflict, we enable ourselves and the people around us to do our very best thinking.  Margaret Heffernan, author of Willful Blindness

How many times do you find yourself thinking “That is not the behavior I want in my company. I really need to do something.” But when you attempt to take that next step to resolve the problem, do you feel butterflies in the pit of your stomach? To avoid an unpleasant conversation, do you end up talking yourself out of saying anything at all? It’s easy to do and almost everyone does it. So what, you ask? If you knew that avoiding conflict is the source of the single highest cost in an organization, or that embracing it can give you a competitive advantage, would you still act the same way?

Costs of Avoiding Conflict

My husband had a doctor’s appointment. The doctor wanted a blood sample and asked the phlebotomist, Sue, to fit him into her busy schedule, which she did. While drawing my husband’s blood, Sue complained (nicely) “The nurse could have drawn your blood while she was taking your history. She didn’t because she is lazy.“ Wow! How do you think the doctor would react if she knew this is what her staff was saying to her patients?

What made Sue say what she did? It was easier for her to vent to my husband than to speak to the nurse. In other words, it was more comfortable to avoid the conflict than to directly address it.

Odds are that something similar is happening in your company. Do you know where? It’s important to find out, because unresolved conflict leads to:

  • losses in productivity
  • slow decision-making
  • stifling of creativity
  • lack of engagement
  • problems with employee retention and morale
  • turf wars and other drama
  • mistrust
  • increased tension
  • customer issues or losses

When adding up the dollar losses from all of these issues, it is easy to see why conflict avoidance is easily the biggest cost in most organizations.

Organization Health as Competitive Advantage

In his most recent book, ” The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business“, Patrick Lencioni, states:

I have become absolutely convinced that the seminal difference between successful companies and mediocre or unsuccessful ones has little to do with what they know or how smart they are; it has everything to do with how healthy they are… A healthy organization is one that has all but eliminated politics and confusion from its environment.

In other words, “If an organization is led by a team that is not behaviorally unified there is no chance that it will become healthy.”

What does an organization’s health have to do with conflict?  Cohesive teams have mastered the art of conflict resolution. In my experience, conflict is most commonly avoided when it involves an employee’s or Executive’s behavior. Behavior is another name for culture and culture always trumps everything else.  Your organization can’t be healthy unless you address behavior that is not consistent with your strategic framework and values.

Here are some the key characteristics of a unified Executive Team:

  • They tap into their courage to:
    • be vulnerable, which creates an environment of trust and safety.
    • accept feedback from others when their own behavior is inconsistent with the company’s values.
    • avoid the tendency to smooth over or ignore conflict.
    • tie behavior to company issues.
  • As CEO, you have clearly defined and communicated the company’s values and what behavior is expected. You have zero tolerance for dysfunctional, emotionally manipulative behavior (aka drama) and you teach others to do the same. The needs of the organization are more important than those of individuals (egos).
  • Your Senior Executive team confronts each other as soon as they observe behavior that differs from your values.
  • As CEO, you expect and support your Executives as they confront each other.
  • When you or your Executive Team sees behavior that is consistent with your values, you praise it. When you or your Executive Team sees behavior that is inconsistent, you deal with it immediately.

Being comfortable with conflict and having the courage to face it is the heart of a cohesive Executive Team, and it is the first step to a healthy organization.

Individual Discomfort

As an individual, how do you get comfortable with conflict?  Like anything else, improvement comes with practice.  So, practice something uncomfortable every day!

I learned the next technique from my Enneagram work.  It is instinctual for us to want to avoid any discomfort, so the obvious way to do that is to just ignore conflict.  The secret to becoming more comfortable being uncomfortable is to give yourself permission to actually feel the discomfort. Specifically identify where in your body you are feeling discomfort and breathe deeply into it. You’ll be surprised how well this works.

Where to Start

If you recognize that you and your team avoid more conflict that it addresses, how do you change?

  1. Understand that dealing with conflict is YOUR job. It is part of leadership. It is normal, healthy and inevitable.
  2. Be vulnerable with your team. This builds trust and gives them permission to do the same.
  3. Tell that queasy feeling inside that it is O.K. to be there.  Do not try to block it, ignore it or get rid of it.
  4. Establish guidelines for how you address conflict.  For example, you and your team should own their own feelings, opinions and beliefs by using “I” statements.
  5. Make a list of all the issues that make you uncomfortable.
  6. Start small.  Address one less-intense, ignored issue in your company. Gradually work your way up to the most intense, conflict-ridden issues and consider an outside facilitator to help with the toughest discussions.
  7. Repeat steps 1 through 6. This is a never-ending cycle. After a while, though, you will be addressing difficult issues on a proactive basis, and you’ll start to realize the competitive advantage that this will give you. Lencioni summarizes why:

An organization that is healthy will inevitably get smarter over time. That’s because people in a healthy organization, beginning with the leaders, learn from one another, identify critical issues, and recover quickly from mistakes. Without politics and confusion getting in their way, they cycle through problems and rally around solutions much faster than their dysfunctional and political rivals do. Moreover, they create environments in which employees do the same. 

A healthy company performs better. Its leaders have the discipline of proactively confronting behavior issues. Even though it’s difficult for all of us, dealing with conflict may be your biggest opportunity for success. When will you start?

Additional conflict references:

TED Talk by Margaret Heffernan, Dare to Disagree

Patrick Lencioni’s website

Forbes Blog by : 5 Keys of Dealing With Conflict

5 Keys To Deal With Conflict, a Forbes blog by Mike Myatt,

Is Avoiding Conflict Really Helping You? The Cost of Ducking, a blog by Lisa Merlo-Booth

Category: Leadership

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About the Author: Cheryl McMillan

Cheryl is a Vistage Master Chair and Executive Coach. She has a passion for raising awareness in leaders about how their choices and unconscious actions impact their results. She leads two C-Suite peer advisory boards, comprised of CEO's or …

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