Engaging in conflict with upper management is a tough topic to discuss and an even more difficult thing to practice effectively.
INTRODUCTION TO CONFLICT WITH UPPER MANAGEMENT
That “boss” you have conflict with secures your job via your annual performance review, and he might also be the person who personally signs your paycheck. As someone working towards the bottom of the organizational hierarchy, I have felt the consequences of good and poor conflict management when interacting with my boss. Some of the experiences I have been through have led me to want to do research to discover the answers to questions such as: How do I as a follower with two levels of management above me express my dissatisfaction about an issue or topic while still staying in line with my leader? How do I do a good job of being a team member who is loyal to his boss while also expressing my thoughts and views that are different than what my boss has? How do I express my views and ideas that conflict with the leader above me and have those ideas and views implemented?
The idea of a young leader at the bottom of an organization creating conflict is new to traditional management philosophies which believe that power belongs at the top and should stay there. David Lipsky and Ariel Augar write, “Dealing with conflicts in organizations has traditionally been the responsibility of managers and administrators who took an authoritarian view of conflict and how to deal with it.”[ref]David Lipsky and Ariel Augar, “The Conflict over Conflict Management,” Dispute Resolution Journal 65, (May/October 2010): 11.[/ref] In the past, it was uncommon to have an organized method to deal with conflict created by a subordinate. And, some business leaders have legitimate grounds to believe conflict management systems promote workplace conflict and inevitably lead to higher levels of employee participation in decision making than is desirable.[ref]Ibid., 11.[/ref]
I believe it is good that we take time to think through what conflict looks like because conflict is going to happen. Former pastor and leadership expert John Maxwell tells us that, “Conflict will arise in any organization. Humans disagree because they are wired differently and have different agendas.”[ref]Maxwell Leadership Bible, 2nd ed., 1204.[/ref] Regardless of who you are or where you work in the organizational hierarchy you will have to engage in conflict. Reading through our text in class put it well this way: “Dealing with conflict is a little like being pregnant. It becomes clear at some point that the delivery needs to take place.”[ref]Carolyn Schrock-Shenk and Lawrence Ressler, eds., Making Peace with Conflict, 89.[/ref] Since conflict is something that will happen sooner or later, I would like to share two successful ways to engage upper management in conflict.
STAND UP AGAINST UNJUST TREATMENT
An example of conflict from scripture is in 1 Samuel 28:7-22.
The context of this section of scripture is the mentally ill Saul (who we know was tormented by an evil spirit) is searching for David to kill him. For years Saul has attempted to hunt down and kill David. As a result, David and his men are hiding in a cave in the wilderness of En-gedi. While in the cave David is tempted to kill Saul but instead just cuts off a corner of Saul’s robe. Then Saul walks out of the cave, and David decides to confront Saul. It could be argued that until this point of David’s confrontation, he has been wrongly treated by Saul. Scripture tells us that David has been an outstanding commander and man of war in the Israelite army.
In fact, David was more successful than any of the other commanders in Saul’s army, yet Saul unjustly attempts to kill David on several occasions. And those attempts to kill David have caused Davod great emotional harm because he had to flee to the wilderness to hide, he had to move his family to keep them safe. The relationship with his best friend, Jonathan (who is also Saul’s son and next in line to become king), is in high tension, and he has lost his wife because of the conflict with Saul. As David follows Saul out of this cave, he decides to take a stand and confront Saul for the unjust treatment he has received by saying,
My lord the king! . . . . Why do you listen to the people who say I am trying to harm you? 10This very day you can see with your own eyes it isn’t true. For the Lord placed you at my mercy back there in the cave. Some of my men told me to kill you, but I spared you. For I said, ‘I will never harm the king—he is the Lord’s anointed one.’11Look, my father, at what I have in my hand. It is a piece of the hem of your robe! I cut it off, but I didn’t kill you. This proves that I am not trying to harm you and that I have not sinned against you, even though you have been hunting for me to kill me. . . . 15May the Lord therefore judge which of us is right and punish the guilty one. He is my advocate, and he will rescue me from your power! (1 Sam 24:7-22)
I think David does a great job of confronting Saul about the wrong things that he feels Saul has done to him. He does not just vent his emotions to Saul, (even though I am sure David was emotional), but he states his opinion that is based on fact. David declares that he will not stand for Saul attempting to kill him.
There comes a point when even if your boss secures your job and/or signs your paycheck, that extreme poor treatment should not be allowed to happen. You are a whole person and “when another’s expression of anger, rage, or contempt burns out of control, you have a responsibility to protect yourself. Listening to belittling; hostile blame; ridicule; demeaning or untrue accusations; sarcastic name-calling; contempt; or actual physical threats is not good conflict management.”[ref]William Wilmot and Joyce Hocker, Interpersonal Conflict, 215.[/ref] One should not attack the unjust person but should not allow unjust behavior to happen, which is what we see here with David. David does not want to “win.” He just wants Saul to know that Saul is in the wrong, that David is going to allow God to judge each of them, that they should find a way to work together to seek the common good for both parties.[ref]Jean M. Bartunek and Barbara E. Bowe, “Transformational Management of Conflict,” Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal 1, no. 2 (1998): 157.[/ref]
The next few verse tell us that David and Saul actually talk out the issue and come to a resolution where Saul confesses he has been wrong and David goes the opposite way.
TALK IT OUT
I hesitate to say that management and workers need to talk about the issues in conflict because it seems obvious, but I am sure that you know it is not always practiced.
It is important to talk out conflict because “if a disagreement emerges, what you do not do matters as much as what you do.”[ref]Michael E. Roloff, “Links between Conflict Management Research and Practice,” Journal of Applied Communication Research 37, no. 4 (November 2009): 341.[/ref] Often it is easier to talk about and criticize the leader we work under instead of confronting the leader. In our course text, Wilmot and Hocker describe this as the “avoid/criticize” loop. They write, “The avoid/criticize loop is quite common in professional circles and the business world. One talks about others, but doesn’t join with them face to face and solve the problem.”[ref]William Wilmot and Joyce Hocker, Interpersonal Conflict, 8th ed., 154.[/ref] That avoid/criticize loop can be seen in the diagram above.
Avoiding and criticizing the other person does little to create a resolution to conflict, especially if someone in task focused work has a conflict with someone in upper management because communication is already limited. Because of this reality between upper management and employees it only fosters an environment where more of the avoid/criticize loop happens.
If we have a conflict with someone in upper management we are most likely to share our disgust with the person(s) we communicate with the most. This means it is vitally important that we not participate in the avoid/criticize loop and when we do have a conflict with someone in upper management that we go to that person and talk about it directly. We saw this modeled for us in the passage of David confronting Saul.
Remember when David walked out of the cave, shouted to Saul to get his attention, and then confronted Saul on the wrongs that David believed were happening. Bible teacher Chuck Swindoll provides great commentary on this situation when Swindoll points out that “David told Saul the whole unvarnished truth; he told it to the person to whom it mattered most. Not to his comrades or to Saul’s friends or to the people of Israel, but to Saul himself. He came to terms with the individual with whom there was the battle.”[ref]Chuck Swindoll, David: A Man of Passion and Destiny, 89.[/ref] This is good because if there is a conflict that takes place between you and upper management, you need to meet together, talk, and work through it.
Even though there are many strategies, techniques, and ideas about how to successfully talk through conflict, the simple attempt to work through the conflict can be constructive. What is important is to talk about the conflict because “collaboration actively affirms the importance of relationship and content goals and thus builds a team or partnership approach to conflict management.”[ref]William Wilmot and Joyce Hocker, Interpersonal Conflict, 8th ed., 171.[/ref] According to Wilmot and Hocker the simple act of wanting to talk through the issue of conflict helps each person to know there is a problem which allows them to work to fix it. However, when conflict does arise most people shy away from it, so there must be a conscious decision to talk about it.
When I express the necessity of simply talking about the issue with upper management some people might perceive that as an excuse to “vent” their anger and feelings to the upper management, which is actually destructive. I want to make sure that as you attempt to talk out issues with upper management it does not mean you vent your emotions. Because communication sometimes does not happen on a regular basis on key issues in the workplace, it might allow for situations to happen over and over again which gives room for feelings of anger and hostility to build up. When those feelings of anger and hostility build up, it might be easy to vent your feelings.
Some people even mistakenly say that venting is healthy for the person who feels the anger. That is a fallacy.
Venting is more destructive than constructive to the person who is angry and the person who has to listen to the angry person. One textbook teaches, “Venting does nothing to help the conflict process.”[ref]Ibid., 208[/ref] This is especially true when you need to confront your leader. If you do think you need to vent, “do it with a safe friend, a counselor, a designated third party—not the conflict partner with whom you are attempting to work. Venting can feel wonderful for a while—but the price is usually too high to warrant the ‘Yes!’ feeling of telling the other person off.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref] When you decided to talk to upper management about conflict make sure you are focused on specific issues that you know need to be remedied.
Even if you do work hard to talk out the issue and not vent, it is important to remember that the leader has the authority to make the final decision. Sometimes the leader is open to the follower’s thoughts and opinions, sometimes she is not which is ok because that is the decision of the leader. In his book, Lead Your Boss, John Baldoni teaches us how to “Push Back the Right Way” to our boss when we disagree or have an idea that might be different than hers. Baldoni reminds us that if our leader does disagree with us we need to:
. . . act professionally. Most of the time, if you and your boss disagree, she will win the argument because she holds power over you and your peers. Accepting that fact does not mean you are a pushover. It is a sign of organizational savvy. It also opens the door for further dialogue. Make it clear that while you disagree behind closed doors, you will not embarrass you boss in a meeting with higher-ups. You will demonstrate your support. That gives the boss the security to know that you have her back. There will be times to voice your opposition, but you don’t want to do so in ways that will make your boss look foolish.[ref]John Baldoni, Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up, 61.[/ref]
Baldoni gives us some great insight about talking out the conflict. It is good to remind the leader that you have her back in front of the rest of the group. As we already learned, expressing your anger and disgust about upper management to your coworkers only criticizes your leader and causes more conflict. It is important to voice your opinion and talk it out with your boss, but in the end your boss is still your boss, and she makes the final decision.
APPLYING THESE PRINCIPLES TO ORGANIZATIONAL LIFE
These new understandings of how to effectively engage in conflict with upper management give us a new framework when conflict arises at work. Now while at work, we know that when conflict comes up, we should not stand for any type of behavior by our boss that is hostile or that belittles us. We also know that it is important that we talk out the conflict with leadership of our organization in a productive way that does not vent our negative feelings and shows support for our leader.
Much of this research is greatly beneficial to me in my work because I have a direct supervisor whom I work for and report to on a regular basis. She also reports to our President/CEO who also reports to our 25 member Board of Directors. So, as I am mostly at the bottom of our organization, I have to deal with how to have constructive conflict with the woman I report to because there are times when I disagree on an issue that we need to talk about and work through together.
Even though there are times when I express my disagreements with her and she makes a decision that does not agree with mine, it is ok because she has the authority to make decisions. It is also important that I navigate our conflict in an effective way in order to foster a positive work environment. This means I stay away from the avoid/criticize loop and not talk negatively about her to people inside or outside of our work department. This is important because she knows that no matter what happens in a conflict she has my support.
Another area that this research applies to my life is with my assertiveness to stand up for myself against unjust treatment. This means that when someone treats me poorly, either at work or at home, that I can stand up for myself. Being treated unjustly does not happen on a regular basis to me, but it is something I need to be sensitive to in the future because I know my natural tendency as an Analyzer/Preserver is to not defend myself against unjust treatment.[ref]Susan Gilmore and Patrick Fraleigh, the Friendly Style Profile: a guide through calm and storm (Eugene, OR: Friendly Press, 2004).[/ref]
The odds are that you are like me: someone who works as part of a team who has one (or more) bosses you have to report to on a regular basis. Now that you know it is okay to engage in conflict with upper management on a regular basis by standing up against unjust treatment and talking out the conflict, I hope you will have productive conflict.