Strong views and opinions are part of what gets an executive into the leadership suite. In fact, some disagreement is valuable and even healthy. To execute strategy there needs to be a fine balance of constructive competition between some functions and aligned cooperation connecting others.

As a result, the ability to construct the right degree of tension on one hand with synergy and followership on the other is an often tested leadership capability. The difficulty is to shape an environment that is safe enough to promote difference and give a voice to silent questions and change agents, but intense enough to create high-performance. One of robust decision-making, with unified decision taking. One where the silos and boundaries don’t work against the organisation.

The tone of an organisation resonates from the top. While homogeneous teams may be easier to manage, diversity of thought and experience is highly advantageous. The senior leadership team needs to work together, disagreeing when necessary but resolving those differences to design and deliver coherent, effective strategies. Of course, it helps when people know and recognise how intellectual and interpersonal conflict differ.

In high-trust cultures, people may debate rigorously, but they also cooperate with each other easily, viewing others as equal partners who readily commit to the best overall future. Intellectual depth, breadth and ingenuity are fostered. If divisional power-interests or turf wars dominate, then directive clout stifles collegiality and heightens combativeness.

Conflict must be deflected from the important. Some business problems or opportunities are just too complex, difficult or ambiguous. Often no one individual or group can develop the answer, or if they could, they cannot execute on their own. To deal with and think through each layer of this complexity, a cross-divisional team must do more than navigate the solid and dotted lines. It has to accept shared accountability; knowing if the team fails, each member also fails.

Tension is a state of change. My observations, when talking to executives or change agents during leader reviews and group coaching sessions, are that there are eight underlying sources of conflict:

  • Values: what is believed about culture, ethics and integrity
  • Power: how control, authority, trust and privilege play out
  • Structure: how we are organised and kept apart
  • Identity: who we are
  • Goal: what we are doing and where we are heading
  • Role: who is doing what
  • Style: way people do things and communicate
  • Procedure: how we are doing this.

Emotion also plays a considerable dynamic. Collaborative effort is a social process that requires give and take to develop conscious interdependence. Personality clashes within the team or with a particular c-suite executive can lead to resentment or polarisation or the isolation of people or ideas.

When this conflict isn’t addressed, it takes on a life of its own, with sides emerging, focus diverted, wrong fights battled, tactics becoming destructive and the pushing of competitive bias.

Whenever conflict begins to take a toll, coaching techniques can develop new skills in holding meaningful conversations, reframing assumptions and learning to fight the right fights in the right way. It can be transformative.


Executives who display traits of high-collaboration and trust become better leaders, change agents, more effective cross-divisional contributors and sought-after mentors.

The more interconnected the organisation, the greater its intelligence. Businesses that can get the compete-collaborate tension right are more likely to create new value propositions, improve strategy execution, generate higher growth rates and be more attractive to customers, talent and suppliers.

“… if you want to see it well, you must not stand in one place …” Chinua Achebe in an interview with The Paris Review


Subscribe to this blog or follow us on twitter @talentadvisors or check out our page on Facebook.

Follow these LinkedIn pages to suit your area of interest:

The Talent Advisors: Busy executives don’t have time to hunt for the more interesting insights. Following this page keeps you updated on a range of ideas, emerging trends or good leadership and governance practices in complex and networked businesses. It is particularly useful for those aspiring to the next level or c-suite.

Aspiring Directors: Aspiring directors can follow this page for mentor tips on aiming for a non-executive board role including how to best be prepared from a nominations committee perspective.



About the author: Dianne Jacobs


Dianne Jacobs of The Talent Advisors, Melbourne, guides and informs businesses, executives, partners and aspiring directors aiming for the next level.