Managers and senior leaders don’t always get along.
Whether you’re a member of the CEO’s executive team charged with making the chief’s vision a reality, or a middle manager working on a project with another manager, disagreements and perceived slights happen, especially when the lines of authority are unclear or overlapping.
The question is: How can you settle the issue before it escalates?
View disagreement as a positive
Few people enjoy being challenged or going to the mat every time they’re at loggerheads with someone else.
But at work disagreements should be expected, according to psychologist Liane Davey, who advises corporate leadership teams on managing conflict.
“We should always find tension between leaders. Always. Otherwise, no one is pushing enough,” said Davey, author of The Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Organization Back on Track.
That’s because each party brings a different agenda to the table based on their function. The head of operations may see things differently than the head of sales, who may see things differently than the head of finance.
The goal with any disagreement is to figure out if you can solve for both of your concerns, and map out the implications of any proposed move for all sides.
But when disagreements are handled poorly and bad feelings fester, “productive tension can turn into corrosive friction,” Davey noted.
That’s especially a risk when you each think you have final say on a decision and the big boss won’t make clear where everyone stands. It’s also a risk when neither of you makes an effort to understand where the other is coming from.
Get curious before getting mad
You may be tempted to assume the person disagreeing with you is arrogant, guilty of overstepping or just plain wrong.
But if you ask questions to find out what’s really important to those who oppose you and then echo back what you heard, you’ll disarm them and lay a foundation for trust and respect.
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“What we tend to do is shout our truth at everyone else. And we’re amazed that no one wants to listen,” Davey said. “But if you validate me and my right to have a different opinion, and you spoke my truth, I’m going to listen to you in such a different way.”
When things are really fraught, take time to prepare for such a levelheaded exchange of truths. Consider what the other person’s institutional power and vulnerabilities are, and where yours are too, said Eugene B. Kogan, who teaches managers and executives how to use power effectively at Harvard’s Professional Development Programs.
Then agree to have a conversation with each other in a neutral place, not in your office or theirs. Don’t bring a laptop, since that can be perceived as walling yourself off from others, Kogan said. If you’re in different places geographically, talk to each other face-to-face on Zoom or Skype. Whatever you do, do not use email to settle things. “It will be a spiral in which you can never get out,” he said.
Decide whether it’s worth the fight
The good news: You don’t need to push to win on everything.
If you’re having a hard time resolving the issue, assess how important it is to you.
“Diagnose whether it’s central to your job. What’s the cost of fighting?” Kogan said.
For example, is the dispute really about a process issue that won’t affect the project’s outcome, which everyone is on board with? And what are the knock-on effects of either forcefully pushing for your position or yielding?
“Ask yourself, ‘What happens to me if I don’t go to the mat? What are the positive and negative implications?” said Jeanne Brett, professor of dispute resolution and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management.
For instance, Brett said, “if you don’t stand up for your team you might wonder ‘How am I going to face them tomorrow?’”
If you decide something is worth fighting for, always keep it professional.
“Find a way that’s manageable and leaves both sides feeling like they’ve been treated with respect,” Kogan said.