“This whole thing could take the entire company down.”  

My more-than-frustrated colleague was concerned about the distraction from one of his business teams – and understandably so.  A stand-off between two managers, based on their individual perceptions who and what was right or wrong – had elevated to theater.  More pointedly, it was theater of the absurd, replete with triangles, gossip, finger-pointing and withholding of information.  It, like any natural disaster, had captured the attention of most and was an undercurrent of noise for the others. 

Has this ever happened to you?  Of course it has.  Whether it was a middle school mean girl thing, a high-school clique or a workplace drama, when humans meet up with humans and forget to access their emotional intelligence, any conflict can escalate quickly. It then takes two different turns – either it is blatant and easy to see (therefore easier to deal with, when you choose to) or it goes underground and becomes a constant nagging and uneasy feeling of something not quite right and impacting your emotional safety. 

Such was the case here.  No need to drag out the gory details – it generally ends with good people leaving.  One of the dueling managers leaves, and hopefully not after the fight to the death derails the entire organization.  This is followed by the inevitable rebuilding – all at a cost to productivity, profit and purpose. 

What’s a business leader to do? 

It’s important to pull this unnecessary drama out by its roots before it takes over the entire garden of your business.  My colleague successfully navigated the situation by taking thoughtful action.  Here is a checklist that will be useful for you the next time you find yourself embroiled in a similar situation: 

  1. Be in the people aspect of your business enough to see the warning signs. 
  2. The minute you see dysfunction, you need not rush in to fix it – however, it must be made clear to the conflicted parties that the expectation is to work it out, remembering that their teams are watching.
  3. Consider a facilitated airing out meeting – a good HR person could facilitate, you could do it, or bring in a coach.  Get everything out on the table – all the hard stuff.  Be prepared to stay in that meeting until there is nothing left to be said and you have arrived at a neutral space.
  4. From the airing out, make agreements about how everyone will behave and what the consequences are for breaking the new behavior agreements. 
  5. Monitor – consider skip level meetings to keep a pulse.  This is not spying or micro-managing, rather a relationship-booster. 
  6. Do a periodic check in with both individuals.  Behavior needs to be learned over time for lasting change.  Do not hesitate to bring undesirable behavior or communication choices to the table for resolution.
  7. Check in with key clients for a progress and satisfaction check.  That check-in could yield invaluable information about what is internally happening.  Customer service comes from the heart of your company, after all. 
  8. Consider leadership and emotional intelligence development for the entire team. This creates team accountability and is amazing with what it yields for your organization.
  9. Short-term coaching may be required – for you to best deal with the issue or for your managers to acquire empathy, collaboration and communication skills. 
  10. If all else fails, make a choice.  Who stays and who goes?  Unresolved and escalated conflict is too big of a price to pay and has huge negative impact. If your managers cannot get to a neutral cooperative space with each other, reassign or terminate one.  Sounds harsh?  Consider the other 50 to 100 families you are responsible for in the form of your employees. 

When you get to resolution, you can still expect to feel uneasy and untrusting.  Know that this is normal.  Your job is to be active in your expectations of trust-building within the organization.  Your job is to have a balanced view of the two steps forward and one back of new behavior.  Your job is to clearly state your expectations, inspect them and be lovingly relentless in your feedback and acknowledgment. 

Sometime after all the dust has settled, take a few hours and jot down the key learnings and insight.  Encourage your formerly entangled managers to do the same.  Some of our best learning comes from leaning into and pushing through the conflict.  What you learn you can retain.  What you retain can keep you out of the drama.