Conflict at the Senior Levels in a Company

“Resolving conflict is rarely about who is right. It is about acknowledgment and appreciation of differences.” – Thomas Crum

We have spoken at length about the need for companies and the senior management to remain aware of conflict situations and resolve them before they become reason for strife and attrition. The fact is that conflicts are real and are normal when we result with other humans – equally complex or more complicated than ourselves. In a company, the worst kind is conflict at the senior levels – there is more to lose, more stress, higher levels of aggression and deeper set ego issues. If a company is experiencing conflict at the senior levels, and this conflict remains unresolved, this company can be considered doomed since they would be too embroiled in their own matters and there would be no one to help and resolve the conflicts of the other employees. It is not easily understood, why despite being a normal occurrence in human interactions, most people have been unable to learn how to prevent it, keep it from escalating or even manage it when it does become tough.

To make matters worse, conflict at the senior levels remains unresolved since it is hard to admit that at that level one is such a situation. They would rather remain in ‘denial’ claiming that they are in the midst of discussions that still need to reach a conclusion or that there are some ‘tough times’ that they are facing and trying to overcome. When people with similar qualifications, experience and status work together, there is bound to be disagreements and hence potentials for conflicts. Many a time, conflict at the senior levels of a company remain unresolved for long since ‘backing off’ or compromising may be seen as a sign of weakness or the inability to stand their ground. This makes it very tough for the persons involved to reach a decision or work together to meet the common goals of the company – the reason for which they have come together. If conflict is used to drive the decisions and projects forward, then they serve a positive purpose. However, if the conflict and disagreement is affecting performance and preventing constructive solutions, then it must be resolved either by the people involved or by the intervention of unbiased others.

Unresolved conflict at the senior levels in a company can have potentially destructive consequences, especially when these conflicts arise as a result of management styles, egos and ‘official titles’. Such conflicts will slowly but surely translate to confusion, strife and disharmony in the entire organization and start a cycle of lowered productivity, poor customer service and eventually customer and employee attrition.

There are a number of reasons for conflicts. The pre-dominant reason however, would be a breakdown in communication and a lack of willingness to understand another person’s point of view. Conflicts at the senior levels are no different, but in fact can be much more serious. Soon enough there is no trust, respect or willingness to listen to the other leading to a complete failure in the processes of the project or decision to be taken. At the senior levels, more often than not, there are no overlapping responsibilities or blurred lines of authority. However, when working together to reach a decision or take a project to completion, the responsibilities and roles often overlap and authority collides and there is great difficulty in accepting solutions offered by others, leading to unresolvable conflicts.

People in leadership positions must first and foremost understand their responsibility of being in positions of influence. Having conflict at the senior levels will put the whole company in jeopardy since the company would be torn in many different directions and there would be no one to lead the others to the common goals. Leadership must take this responsibility seriously and encourage open communication within their ranks first. They must be careful and prudent while working together and accept that each person has the right to express their views and must remain in acceptance of these and also be committed to the end goals of the company.

Before trying to deal with conflict, each person must first understand the kinds of conflicts that exist. These are broadly – the most basic one of interpersonal conflicts. It probably could be safe to assume that conflict at the senior levels in a company is a direct result of interpersonal differences – diverse working and management styles, ego hassles, strong personalities and set thought processes cemented over years of practice. The other kind of conflict has to do with goals – there could be differences in perceiving end results, the manner in which the goals should be reached, the criteria to judge the effectiveness of certain decisions and other such varied thought processes. The third kind is conflicts arising out of administrative issues – roles, authority levels, spread of responsibilities and reporting relationships within the closed group. When conflict at the senior levels goes unrecognized or is purposefully ignored, the stress and disharmony will inevitably be felt throughout the company and will put a spoke in the smoothly functioning wheel of everyday operations.

We have oft repeated that employees emulate their leadership – both good and bad traits. It often happens, when there is conflict at the senior levels that staff members tend to take sides and show their loyalty to one or two of the senior members. This in turn leads to conflicts within the employees, leading to stressful situations and a task force that is frustrated and soon becomes unproductive and ready to leave. The other side of conflict at the senior levels is that, employees could be forced to take up for one or the other point of view leaving them feeling used and often this support goes unrewarded. When smaller conflicts break out due to these issues, managers often find themselves in the middle of the cross-fire and end up being tired and looking at opportunities outside the current company. As a result of all this unrest, more conflicts are created and because of no strong leadership these conflicts soon blow out of proportion.

The harsh reality is that the cost of poor management and unresolved conflicts in the company are many but the long term damaging results cannot be determined but will definitely be there. From all the above, it is very clear that conflict at the senior level will have far-reaching effects on everyone in the company. Some of these effects are loss of productivity and severely reduced output due to people spending more time in conflicts, saving ‘their back’, fighting off negativity, managers unable to deal with piling workloads, high stress levels encouraging absenteeism, more sick leaves, employees seeking opportunities outside the workplace resulting in huge costs for the company on termination, rehiring, on-boarding, training, sometimes litigious situations, serious complaints and other such activities that would not be required had conflicts been resolved. A report has revealed that at least 65% people resign from a due to conflicts in the company that are left unresolved.

Conflict at the senior levels or within the company is often left unattended, ignored and unaddressed because conflict can be very uncomfortable to deal with head on and most people hope the issue will get resolved on its own. Very often it is seen that those who intervene or try to find a solution, end up being the ones to take the resolution to its end and no one wants this added responsibility and hence no one takes it on themselves. At the senior levels, it also becomes a prestige issue and hence they are not comfortable acknowledging that there is a conflict situation, leaving it unresolved. Also being at a senior level, does not always mean that the persons are adept at handling or managing conflict – conflict management is quite complex and requires special skills to completely resolve it and ensure that the conflict situation does not reoccur.

Avoiding and ignoring conflict is not a wise move or even an option and people at senior levels in a company must realize this better than anyone else. Senior leaders are the beacons for the other employees and conflict at the senior levels will only serve to make every process and resource ineffective and lead to the downfall of the company.

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