On one hand, a perfectly smooth-running executive team is management’s dream. On the other hand, given the many strong personalities in executive ranks, the likelihood of actually finding such perfection, with no disagreements ever, is about as likely as my finding a snow leopard on a hike near my home in Colorado this afternoon.
Certainly, everyone would prefer a functional executive team where disagreements don’t dominate the proceedings. Having been on many executive teams over the years—and having built some of my own—here are four observations on how to make and keep your team as effective as possible.
1. Manage conflict thoughtfully.
First of all, accept that some degree of disagreement is OK. Not having any disagreement at all would be unhealthy—a sign that people aren’t speaking their minds. Some conflict can even be constructive and lead to innovation and progress. However, other conflict can be destructive and damaging to team dynamics. The trick for executives is to manage conflict thoughtfully—staying calm, maintaining the moral high ground, and not thinking in terms of “winning” so much as “resolving.” That way, when disagreements do occur, they don’t become divisive but are a normal, reasonable part of the give-and-take of a talented, high-performing team.
2. Build a team that’s on the same page.
In other words, start at the beginning—by building a group that respects one another and is fundamentally compatible. I was on all kinds of teams in my decades in business, and one thing I learned is that one difficult individual can easily hijack a well-intentioned group. I was never one for firing people capriciously—but at the same time, if a strong-willed (even very talented) person is terminally harmful to team dynamics, he or she has to go. Your team will likely respect you more for taking tough action when it’s clearly needed.
3. Maintain credibility and trust.
When it comes to resolving issues before they become problems and keeping order in the ranks, “street cred” is always of value. Is an executive perceived as credible, trustworthy, and fair? The more someone’s judgment is unequivocally trusted, the easier it will be for him or her to exercise authority and have others accept it. At the other end of the spectrum, if an individual hasn’t always earned such trust, it may well be harder to maintain loyalty and keep team members on the same page. Credibility counts.
4. “Read” people accurately.
My own belief is that success in this area often comes down to the intuitive ability to “read” people accurately. To sense when a disagreement is minor and healthy, or when it may be a sign of something deeper and more problematic. To have an accurate perception of how team members get along with each other. To feel when it’s OK to let it go and allow smart folks to argue a bit… or when you need to step in and tamp it down, lest small problems become big ones. In short: plain old people sense, more art than science.
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In the end, some executive team disagreements are inevitable, but handling them effectively can make the difference between chaos and productivity.
Victor Lipman is a management trainer and author. His online courses on Udemy include The Manager’s Mindset and his book is “The Type B Manager.” He has more than 20 years of Fortune 500 management experience. He has contributed regularly to Forbes and Psychology Today, and his work has appeared in Harvard Business Review.