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The executive team's role in transforming conflict

As J.K.Galbraith pointed out, "The modern corporation is socially a theatre of all the conflicts that might be expected when hundreds of thousands of highly charged, exceptionally self-motivated, and more than normally, self-serving people work closely together". 

However, to reduce our explanation of organisational conflict simply to the self-interest of people would be a failure to appreciate the complexity of conflicting forces at play in the modern organisation that need to be aligned, resolved or transformed if the organisation and business is to be productive and successful.  Though rarely explicitly stated, one of the most important functions of the executive team's task is to resolve and transform conflict both in the team and on behalf of the organisation. 

Conflict is endemic in most executive teams and boards though it often goes unacknowledged as it tends to be seen as a sign of failure by its members and other stakeholders instead of a natural and to-be-expected phenomenon given the diversity of interests, competing priorities, organisational tensions, and conflicting demands that they are required to deal with.  How the Executive team deals with these conflicts will be reflected and amplified positively or negatively throughout the organisation and will significantly influence the atmosphere, creativity, adaptive capability and effectiveness of the organisation.  Executive teams are increasingly becoming the testing ground for values and developments that are emergent and contentious in the organisation and perhaps even society itself.

Exec teams usually comprise individuals who have become members because they are heads of function and often see themselves as representing their own area of responsibility. This very identification with the team they already feel bonded to and which underpins their success, is often a major barrier to bonding and identification with the Exec team and its mission.  In seeing themselves as belonging to and representative of their team of origin, the Exec team is treated as the place they go to promote the interests of their functions, compete for resources, account for and defend their area and protect its prospects. This kind of mental model sets up the Exec Team as a theatre of conflict in which members are set against one another rather than being a cohesive team that adds greatest value to the organisation's mission and goals.  The critical task of shifting primary identification from the functional team to the executive team is often neglected and can undermine the Exec team. 

The effectiveness of the Exec team depends on the diversity and balance of the expertise, personality types and representation in its membership.  This very diversity - a key to its success - is what puts a considerable strain on the team dynamic.  Such diversity naturally generates contention and conflict, so it is essential the Exec team becomes a robust crucible capable of containing the pressures created.   Therefore a critical challenge, both for individuals and leadership, is identification and bonding with the Exec team and building relationships strong enough to withstand the strain of tensions for long enough to resolve, transform or align them.

An early test of the robustness of these relationships happens during the storming stage of team development.  At this stage members have passed the initial getting-to-know you and coffee-talk and try to influence each other to meet their needs or achieve the team task.  Some teams never get this far because members are afraid the relationships won't hold or don't feel confident enough to risk the sustained self-assertion and engagement needed to see them through the stage. Some teams get stuck in it, fail to meet the challenges of getting beyond it and remain locked in low-key repetitive and unproductive conflict or back off to positions of polite energy-less toleration, weak bonding and low commitment.  Personal agendas override team mission and relationships remain weak. The team fails to agree norms that will enable them to bring their energy and diversity to the team's mission with the confidence that the relationships can withstand the strain or at least that the risk is manageable and damage reparable.

To become a high-performing team the leader must help the members engage and successfully navigate the storming phase rather than try and sort out the conflicts themselves using their positional power as they so often do. The leader needs to make clear to the team that it is their task, not the leader's, to resolve and transform conflict.  If the leader has a low tolerance for such conflict and avoids it, or fails to hold the team to the task of working through the turmoil and contention, then it is likely that the team will be ineffective and perform poorly.  It will also limit the team's capacity to resolve and transform future conflicts resulting in indecisiveness, poor decision-making and implementation, back-room dealing and gamesmanship. The task of surfacing, resolving and transforming conflict in the Exec team needs to be explicit and committed to by all members.

Feelings are at the heart of conflict.  All conflict situations are emotionally charged because they concern issues that are important to members, whether needs, values beliefs, identity and so on. The Exec team's emotional reactions are usually complex and multiple and members may feel too vulnerable to acknowledge or even be conscious of the range and complexity of their emotional responses (which may themselves be conflicting within any given member).  Their individual and collective ability to contain and transform conflict is a reflection of the team's maturity and the  capability they have developed to handle intense emotion in pressured working environments.

Most Exec teams will try to avoid the turbulence of the feeling landscape preferring the more comfortable ground of rationality. This is amplified by the predominance of thinking preference personalities and men in senior teams who are often less comfortable with the emotional realm. The tendency to ignore or minimise the importance or significance of emotional response, or to withhold emotion for fear of escalating the conflict or loosing our cool and damaging the relationship needs to be overcome.  If not, it may prevent the team attuning with one another at the deeper level which genuine expression of emotion facilitates.  Alternatively, unexpressed feelings may leak into communication and distract or make it difficult to listen or be listened to.

Even where members are more open about feeling, emotions are often expressed in a way that implies others are responsible for generating them, e.g. "you are embarrassing or irritating me". This is usually followed by an attempt to change the others behaviour rather than trying to get to the root of their own emotional response i.e. their needs or beliefs.  This confuses responsibility for poor behaviour with responsibility for emotional response and ends up in a tangled mess of threat, attack and defence that is difficult to sort out.  It locks members into conflicting positions, escalates the emotional temperature and distorts or impedes understanding the issues at stake. Cleaning up the language used in emotional expression can significantly improve communication and the transformation process.

The leader has a key role in directing the team toward the emotional agenda and holding them to it while they process the complex tangle of emotion, discern its meaning and the underlying values, needs or beliefs.  To motivate members to stay with this level of discomfort, they need to be convinced that the team's mission and purpose are sufficiently worthwhile. The leader may need to remind the team of their compelling vision when the going gets tough as it will do occasionally. In order to lead the team in this way, the leader will need to have developed their own emotional competence and have the understanding and the capability to facilitate such a process. Alternatively they may need to engage the services of a professional facilitator to help the team.

The Exec team plays a number of different roles in resolving and transforming conflict generated by change initiatives and dealing with the turbulence, resistance, contested territories, interfaces and breakdowns that accompany them. 

Firstly, it acts as a crucible into which many of these issues get elevated and where they need to be inquired into and transformed on behalf of the organisation. The Exec team must illuminate, lead and model the way to resolve and transform difficult issues and transcend individual interests on behalf of the wider organisation.  The degree of mindfulness, courage and skill that the Exec team bring to this process can prevent the damaging personalization of these tensions and conflicts and ensure that the issues, interested and values and concerns of all stakeholders are honoured and integrated into a sustainable course of action.  Critically, they work on the conflict rather than as protagonists in it.

Secondly, the Exec team helps orchestrate the conflict in the wider organisation, helping create the containment that will enable staff to grapple with the issues themselves. It may mean accelerating change which has the effect of surfacing difficult issues that need to be faced, providing support and challenge to enable people engage in the resolution and transformation process or easing off the pace of change to give people more time to adapt and change, rebuild relationships and reinforce the containing structures and processes.  How the Executive Team leads on working with opposition and conflict can determine the success and sustainability of the change initiative.

During the conflicts that accompany change, certain members of the team or the organisation may dominate or try to use their power to coerce other members to their way of thinking and acting. Some times this is very subtle, sometimes very overt.  Either way, if it succeeds or goes unnoticed the result will be a win-lose situation and will make it less likely that the tensions and conflicts will be transformed into productive and sustainable outcomes.  Whether in the team or the wider organisation power needs to be balanced in some way for transformation to occur and the leader plays an important role in ensuring that all voices are heard and that power imbalances are brought into awareness. The leader may need to use their position to rebalance power, but only to help the team find its own way of balancing power, otherwise the team becomes inappropriately dependant on the leader to impose it.

Paradoxically, consciously engaging in the transformation of conflict the context of a shared mission and vision strengthens the Exec team and facilitates emergent and shared leadership when done effectively.  The Exec team effectively becomes a laboratory - a melting pot of the ideas, tensions and pressures where members really begin to see the importance of their contribution to the future and health of the entire organisation. Such work expands mutual awareness and understanding and creates the conditions for innovation and creativity as well as extraordinary performance.  Most Exec teams, however, do need help to do it well and, like cigarettes, this work carries a health warning - it can damage the health of the team, though perhaps no more so than if hidden or unresolved conflict is already damaging the Executive team's performance.

Some Tips for Executive Teams

  • Get the team to create a "Conflict In-tray" to create awareness of those difficult conversations or conflicts they may be avoiding, those taking up too much time and energy and those that need to be prioritised.  Categorise into a matrix: important, urgent, not important, not urgent.

  • Get all members of the team to complete an MBTI, TMS, DISC, or other personality type or communication style assessment and explore how the differences help or hinder the teams performance and ability to resolve and transform conflict.

  • Take some time away from the task and agenda of the team to review the nature and strength of team identity and relationships - exploring issues of inclusion/exclusion; power/influence; bonding/affection - which underpin the ability of the team to contain and transform conflict. 

  • Build the team's capability to engage in dialogue and high quality communication before engaging on significant change initiatives.