The Frustrations of the Conflict-Averse Executive

When an executive disagrees with a proposal or approach, the situation can go in two directions:

In the best-case scenario, the disagreement gets worked through collegially, even if it means that other people — other executives, even — have to change their approach in order to achieve a resolution.

But in the worst-case scenario, for whatever reason, the executive feels that she can’t, shouldn’t have to, or doesn’t have the time to work things through. She may make some gentle noises that go unheard, but basically acts as if she’s content with the approach/and or outcome. Then, after underreacting for too long, she feels so frustrated that she overreacts. At that point, her dissatisfaction blindsides and shocks people who didn’t see it coming.

Taken to Extremes

It’s almost as if the exec is saying, “I don’t want to criticize, but I’m willing — when pushed — to overreact.” No one would intentionally choose this as a mode of operation, but many senior people actually subscribe to it.

Of course, it’s best for everyone if the exec shares her views early on while she is still relatively calm and the team’s mistakes and missteps are still correctable and recoverable. Once the situation gets amped-up, it’s likely that certain undesirable patterns will have gone uncorrected for so long that they become entrenched, cause a lot of damage, and aren’t easy to fix.

This result is easiest to see when the problem is specifically an employee’s difficult behavior. For example, say the exec has a subordinate, Xerxes, who regularly annoys his colleagues and impinges on their teams and resources. He finishes the coffee without starting a new pot and sends his team members to sit in prime workstations that are empty but up for reassignment, which is unfair to those who have been waiting patiently. He also sends emails to a wider-than-appropriate distribution list but they’re so sloppy and unclear that they neglect to inform the key players of crucial information.

Read and Heed the Warning Signs

The exec considers the things Xerxes does annoying, but fairly trivial in the scheme of things. So she doesn’t make a fuss about him, even though she’s getting tired of hearing complaints from the rest of the staff about their confusion and resentment, and occasionally she has to do some damage control and mop-up herself.

Eventually, though, Xerxes blows off an important meeting with a major customer, speaks inaccurately on the exec’s “behalf,” and makes what should have been a collaborative decision unilaterally — without letting the exec know that he made the decision or what it was. Now the exec’s low-grade chronic annoyance becomes full-blown anger.

Although Xerxes’s minor infractions had been annoying but not intolerable, they were actually signs of destructive behaviors to follow. His lack of sensitivity to others and obliviousness of appropriate business boundaries were actually symptomatic of a mode of behavior that did not fit the organization’s culture. They were not only disruptive to team members, but downright damaging to the business as well.

Blown Off Becomes Blown Up

Unfortunately, once the exec has blown up, the situation can feel like a personal grudge match between her and Xerxes. His behavior patterns may have persisted too long and grown too pervasive to be addressed with the small, simple pointers of typical behavioral feedback.

Depending on the cultural norms of the organization and the exec’s appetite for intervention, Xerxes may actually lose his job. If that happens abruptly, it can create a rift in the organization, even if his absence is a relief to the exec and to his colleagues. This kind of situation can suggest to other employees — even the ones who were happy to see Xerxes go — that the firm offers little job security or loyalty to individuals.

How can this situation be avoided? Next week’s post will show how deep the impact on the organization can be if the executive doesn’t take appropriate steps to confront inappropriate behavior. The week after that, we’ll look at straightforward ways to talk about disagreeable situations that can be used even by the conflict-averse.

Onward and upward,

LK

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