Conflict. We all know it when we see it and often struggle to deal with it effectively. I often wonder why executives seem to have more difficulty with it. Is it because they are so visible and employees watch their every move or is it something else?

Last night as I watched The Apprentice, Rod Blagojeich, the former Illinois governor was fired. It was not because he did know how to use the computer or his cell phone to text to his team, but because he failed to deal with conflict.

This show is designed to see how well you react to conflict as a leader and follower. If there is not enough conflict in the challenges, the ultimate showdown is in the boardroom. Instead, I found myself getting bored with Rod’s charm or maybe I irritated with the political dance.

I admit it; I like to see a good and fair fight. Knowing where someone stands on an issue opens the dialogue to debate the pros and cons of a decision. It allows assumptions to be broken down.

Unproductive behaviors such as vacillation, avoidance or even passive-aggressiveness increase the level of distrust. For some odd reason, a few executives have used these behaviors effectively to propel their upward climb in the organization. It is a conundrum to me.

Dr. Hagberg, President of Hagberg Consulting Group states that many executives are conflict phobic. The research his group has done resonates with many of my personal and client experiences.

It often presents itself as a moral dilemma. Here are some of the questions I get:

  • How honest can I be if I want to move up the career ladder?
  • Is it better for me to be noncommittal vs. putting my opinion out there?
  • Do executive teams want to hear something that is different from their perception?
  • What do I do if my opinion is controversial?
  • How do I build trust with someone I cannot trust?
  • Why does my manager avoid giving me feedback?
  • What do I do about the person who refuses to listen?
  • How do I change my boss’s or the organization’s perception?

There is no easy answer on how to get someone else to deal with conflict. You can control how you approach someone, however, if they do not want to address it, you will see those unproductive behaviors repeatedly.

I will give you an example. Brenda thought she had a collegial relationship with someone who worked at a prior company. Joe was in senior management and subsequently left the organization too. They both reconnected because of their professional network and similar independent endeavors. In the course of some exchanges, Brenda said something that rubbed Joe the wrong way and she had no idea about it.

The next thing Brenda knew, her network with Joe vanished. After some investigation, she determined it might be something she said. Joe never said anything to her but did something to make it obvious. What should she do about it?  It was clear that Joe’s way of dealing with it was to avoid discussing it.

Brenda decided to contact Joe to acknowledge the relationship shift and to convey her disappointment. She had hoped that if there was a difference of opinion, that Joe would share his point of view candidly with her.

At this point, Joe has two choices – to initiate a conversation or to continue the conflict by avoiding it.

Conflict does not have to be mean or nasty. It can be as simple as subtle friction or uneasiness.

Brenda has not heard from Joe. It might be time to let the relationship retire.

Executives seem to be masters at passive conflict. It is hard to find because they like to hide it. Maybe there is some level of satisfaction in thinking they have addressed it secretly rather than being forthright. The only trouble is that it promotes distrust.

When you do find it, approach it like regular conflict. Ask to open a dialogue. At the very least, you know you have done what you can to repair the relationship.

Can you think of instances where conflict was present, yet camouflaged?