Two Rival Functions in the Company Constantly Fighting? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I run operations for a regional (UK/Europe) division of a real estate and relocation company. I have several functions reporting up to me, and right now two of them are at war. All day every day I have emails flying in from both sides, pointing fingers, blaming, asking for the other side to follow the rules, and generally whining.

I am hindered by two things: the affinity I have for the function I used to lead before I was promoted, and a history of having experienced bullying from the other function. It is almost impossible for me not to take sides. I get angry as I find myself getting dragged in while feeling both emotionally involved and ineffective.

There is so much work to do—and the pressure to perform with an increased workload due to new projects brought on by the COVID virus is only half the problem. I can barely think straight.

I am sure there are some logical steps to take and I am hoping you can help.

At War

Dear At War,

This sounds like situation normal to me. There is a lot of guidance and information out there for how to get a team to work together more effectively, but not a whole lot for how to get two separate functions or teams to interface without constant tension. In fact, most organizations are set up in such a way that natural tensions are common—sales vs. marketing, delivery vs. operations, you name it. It’s the Shirts vs. the Skins at work for most people every day. Leaders like you tend to be able to keep the static at a dull roar until extraordinary pressure is applied—and then, well, all hell breaks loose. And who isn’t feeling extraordinary pressure these days?

So, yes, I do have some logic for you. Let’s remember, though, that humans aren’t logical—and when their brains are flooded with adrenaline 24/7 they tend to get less logical. But let’s apply some logic and see if it helps.

First, calm your own fight response. You recognize that you are part of the problem, which is great, and now you need to cut it out. Step back, take some deep breaths, remember that you are the leader, and ask yourself how you can rise above the fray. The best way I know of to do this is to remember that all of the offenders are just people, acting like people, with their own reasons for doing what they are doing. Put yourself in the shoes of the people who are making you furious. How? Talk to them. But not until you are sure you can be curious and ask questions in a non-defensive way. We’ll get to how to do that in a minute.

To prepare, you will need to practice in whatever way you have previously learned to manage your own emotions—exercise, meditation, prayer. If you don’t have a way, now is the time to learn one. I know, it is hard to try something new when you are already overwhelmed, but you must. If nothing else, try taking deep breaths, counting your breaths, counting to 10, turning off your video and going on mute to scream (don’t scare the dog!). Here is another post on this topic that may help. Do whatever it takes—your leadership effectiveness depends on your ability to self-regulate.

Next, reach out and make time to meet with the leaders of the two functions. Prepare some good questions and just listen. When you do speak, start with candor: “I understand there are tensions between your team and another team. I would like to understand your perception of what is going on, and I’m hoping we can find a way to smooth things out.”

Note: You are going to want to get in there and explain your position and try to solve the problem by getting others to see it your way and behave themselves. That never works. So park that impulse.

You must go into conversations ready to deeply empathize with the person’s experience and point of view. You earn the right to advocate for your own position only by fully understanding theirs—and demonstrating that you understand it. It can feel like belaboring the issue to repeat back in your own words what you have heard, but it is an extremely effective way of allowing people to feel heard. And it can change your own thinking to boot.

Then and only then can you share your point of view. Some sentence stems that may help:

“This is how I see things—how is your perception different?”

“I may have a blind spot here, help me to see it.”

“It would be useful if you could help me to improve how I am looking at this.”

“What would our critics think of how we are shaping our approach?”

I am not making this up—it comes from our new Conversational Capacity® program that I am just crazy about. The whole idea is to find the sweet spot between curiosity and candor. I tend to err on the side of candor and have to work awfully hard to settle into the curiosity portion of the program.

Finally, remember that, like you, everyone is doing the best they can given their level of awareness and their experience. No one wakes up in the morning with the intention to go to work and bully people. (Well, most don’t.) If there really are some nasty, bad apples in the mix, they will be exposed—and it will be up to the functional leaders to address. But the truth will be revealed only through deep and courageous conversations, and you will provide the leadership for making that happen.

This is your moment, At War. Your testing ground. You must rise and you can rise to the occasion. It will probably take everything you have, and it will be worth it.

Love, Madeleine

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is the co-founder of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ Coaching Services team.  Since 2000, Blanchard’s 150 coaches have worked with over 16,000 individuals in more than 250 companies throughout the world. Learn more at Blanchard Coaching Services.

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