Steve Scherer

by Steve Scherer


Navigating Cross-Departmental Conflict

Does healthy conflict change depending on the position of the person you’re engaging with? 

The short version: no. 

Build trust, give the benefit of the doubt, be quick to listen, and slow to get angry-no matter who you’re dealing with.

However, the dynamic can be very different in approaching a peer than the head of another department.

For peer-to-peer opportunities-offer to get lunch, coffee, or some other non-threatening medium and do 2 things: Show up.  Show interest.  Interview vs. interrogate.  Ask questions and take notes.  State on the front end why you’re reaching out.  Make clear the intent of the meeting and articulate your posture of humility. 


You could say something like this: “I know we both want to help XYZ Company grow, and I could use your help.  I’m realizing there’s a lot I need to learn about other departments since we’re all connected in one way or another.  If you’d be up for it, I’d love to ask you a few questions over lunch/coffee sometime soon.” There’s no guarantee they’ll say yes to lunch, but there’s more at stake than your nervousness. 


You might be thinking, “Where does the healthy conflict come in?”  It might not. 


The more conversations I have about potentially contentious situations, the more I realize how limited my perspective is.
A team cannot thrive if there is a lack of honesty, broken trust, or lack of humility.  


You want what’s best for your organization, your peer, and your area of responsibility.  Asking clarifying questions, listening intently, and even possibly disagreeing will bring clarity to both of you.  Once trust with your peer is established, healthy conflict is a natural progression. 


Healthy conflict should often happen between a manager and their employees. This can be for many reasons but primarily because you work so closely together.  Passionate, talented people ask questions like “what if” and “why not?” 

These questions don’t automatically equate to disrespect or mistrust.  As a manager, you must engage in healthy conflict so your people can follow your example. If you do this poorly, then your people will, as well. They are a reflection of your leadership. 

It’s a lot of pressure, but when you mess up, own it and get better.  As a positional leader, you have an opportunity to create a safe place for your subordinates to fail, try stuff, and challenge good ideas to make them great ones.  Do not be flippant in your communication. 


Your words have power. 

They have the potential of being like gold bars when used wisely and like anchors around the neck if used carelessly.  


The executive team is expected to be the best of the best. They are the people the owner has allowed to influence critical aspects of the business. They represent the owner when he or she is not around. It is nearly impossible to have a united front if healthy conflict is not practiced regularly during disagreements with your executive team.


The goal should be to have healthy conflict in every meeting. (Want a different term? Try "Productive Debate." Our EOS Implementor shared that with us.)

That does not mean you manufacture an issue, but it does mean speaking up directly until it’s clear what the expectation is.  Meetings shouldn’t be a waste of time.  If it’s a waste, cancel it.  There’s too much at stake for an executive team to agree so that the meeting can end early. These meetings should be setting the direction for the whole company. 


Strong, confident personalities get things done and usually get their way.  This is why this also has the potential to be the “Clash of Titans.” Healthy conflict can grow and strengthen the executive team if approached as outlined in this eBook. 


It is always best for healthy conflict to be done between the two people involved. Seems obvious, right?  When approaching someone from a different department, it can feel like you’re stepping into a minefield. 


Pride, defensiveness, and territorial feelings are all possibilities lying right below the surface.  


When in doubt, run your plan past your manager before stepping out. If the conversation goes sideways, then a manager should be brought in. Ignoring the issue won’t solve it.

Whenever possible, only involve the people who can help make the situation better. It might feel good to share your frustrations with others, but it will only worsen things. 

Gossip is poison. 

It will kill any momentum you’ve established. 

Now let’s say the issue is not being worked out between you and the other employee, be ready for your supervisor to involve the other employee’s manager. Overcommunicate with your supervisor throughout.  

It’s worse for your boss to be caught off-guard than overprepared.   Most likely, one of three things will happen. 
1. Your manager will instruct you to speak directly to the other department’s manager. 
2. Your manager will handle it on a manager-to-manager level,
3. It’ll be you, the other employee, and your managers sitting down together.

This will depend on how open your company is with staff going to other department managers and the chain of command.

Two “what if” scenarios.  First, what if you’re the supervisor noticing a rift between two of your employees?  Even when trust has been established, navigating this conversation can be tricky.  Keep a few things in mind.

Your perspective differs because of your position: your view is elevated above either employee.  You most likely see more of the relational landscape. 


It’s not your responsibility to make healing happen. 

Present the challenge and let your people rise to where you set the bar.

Second, what if you’re lower in the hierarchy than the person you need to engage with?  Pause.  Do not engage with peers about it. They can’t help you.  Build trust with your direct supervisor.  Check your motives.  Then broach the topic from a place of humility vs. accusation.  This situation can be one of the most difficult to process through, but it is possible. 


I recommend you check out an insightful podcast episode of WorkLife with Adam Grant: The Science of Productive Conflict.  It’s worth a listen or three.

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