Perspectives on Conflict with Your Boss
In my experience coaching executives transitioning into new leadership roles, they often express challenges in two particular areas: 1) a lack of alignment between the executive and his or her boss on goals and expectations, and 2) the reality of the role and responsibilities is different than was originally anticipated or promised.
It underscores the need to gather as much information as possible, ensure clarity early on (starting with the interview process), and build relationship with your boss to gain common understanding of expectations and priorities in the first 90 days. Without it, conflict can develop and escalate, threatening the success of the new executive’s transition and longer-term tenure.
To establish alignment of goals and expectations from the start, I encourage new executives to set a regular schedule of weekly or bi-weekly check-ins with his or her boss and co-create a leadership agenda in the first 90 days. This document sets forth strategic priorities and actions that the new leader will advance in the first 12 months. (Click here for a leadership agenda worksheet.) Once created, this agenda can serve as a guide for the check-in meetings as well as a tool for performance review at the six- and 12-month points.
In addition to the two common issues noted above, other key sources of challenge and potential conflict include:
- You and your boss sit at different vantage points and therefore have different perspectives and ways of approaching and responding to situations.
- A lack of confidence exists between the two of you.
- There is a mismatch of values, beliefs, ethics, or some other element, such as leadership and management style, philosophy, or personality.
When you experience conflict with the person to whom you report, it presents unique challenges. It’s an area you must address head on and navigate cautiously. Noted by authors Davida Sharpe and Elinor Johnson in Managing Conflict with Your Boss, “As a manager with responsibilities up and down the organizational chain, recognizing and resolving conflicts with your boss may well define to what degree you can effectively contribute to your organization.”
It’s important to know the genesis and circumstances under which conflicts can arise. Understanding the source and context allows you to make a full examination of the conflict so you can work through to a resolution and avoid possible derailment.
Since the early 1980’s, the Center for Creative Leadership has studied executive derailment in North America and Europe. By comparing successful managers to those who derail, CCL has identified poor interpersonal skills (such as the inability to manage conflict) as the reason most often cited forcing executives off track. This top characteristic is followed by failure to hire, build, and lead a team and failure to meet business objectives.
CCL has found that of all the factors important for success within an organization, there are four that your boss is likely to value most: resourcefulness, doing whatever it takes, being a quick study, and decisiveness. If you are experiencing conflict, part of the issue may stem from your failure to meet his/her expectations in one or more of these key areas.
Below are a few questions to examine how well you perform in each of these areas:
- I think strategically under pressure.
- I set up complex work systems.
- I exhibit flexible problem-solving behavior.
- I work effectively with higher management in dealing with the complexities of the job.
Doing whatever it takes:
- I show perseverance and focus in the face of obstacles
- I take charge
- I learn from others when necessary
Being a quick study:
- I quickly master new technical and business knowledge.
- I make good decisions under pressure.
- I make decisions and take action in a timely fashion.
- I follow through on decisions.
Once complete, it can be helpful to share the questions and your responses with your boss and have a conversation around his or her expectations of you in each area.
Finally, in addition to these tools, it can be helpful to gather information on conflict management strategies from others, such as:
- Seek advice from trusted individuals within your network.
- Ask for formal and informal feedback.
- Observe colleagues to glean best practices from others who report (or previously reported) directly to your boss.
- Consider how you manage and relate to your own direct reports.
- Look “up” in your organization. Understanding what your boss’s boss expects can tell you a lot about what he or she may expect of you.
Sharpe, D., & Johnson, E. (2002). Managing conflict with your boss. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership.
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About Jeanie Duncan: Jeanie is President of Raven Consulting Group, a business she founded that focuses on organizational change and leadership development in the nonprofit sector. She is a senior consultant for Raffa, a national firm working with nonprofit clients to lead efforts in sustainability and succession planning, executive transition and search. Additionally, Jeanie serves as adjunct faculty for the Center for Creative Leadership, a top-ranked, global provider of executive leadership education.