Marketing Organizational Leadership, Dr. Todd Dewett - Leadership toolset #4: Conflict Management

Apr 10, 2012

Vya Staff

Continuing our ongoing Marketing Organizational Leadership Series, we are pleased to share Dr. Todd Dewett’s expert perspective on conflict management and resolution. Dr. Dewett is an emerging and highly sought motivational speaker who transforms leadership insights into accessible fuel for leaders. He is the author of The Little Black Book for Leadership and the creator of

Since beginning his motivational speaking career, Dr. Dewett has been quoted in The New York Times, BusinessWeek, CNN and hundreds of other publications. Dr. Dewett has held past roles at Andersen Consulting and Ernst & Young and, in addition to his motivational speaking and consulting career, is a current Professor of Management at Wright State University.


Do You Have a Conflict Elephant? You’re Not Alone

“Conflict is completely normal in high-performing organizations,” says Todd. “If you find your company facing issues with conflict management and resolution, you’re not alone; it’s actually really common. And the first place to start in addressing the conflict ‘elephant-in-the-room’ is with acknowledging we all had a role in creating conflict, which means we all need to start owning our behaviors and stop placing B.L.A.M.E.” What does B.L.A.M.E. stand for? Barely legitimate, almost meaningless, excuse! And we have to let go of it to begin addressing conflict in the workplace. As it turns out, how leaders handle conflict actually accounts for the difference between good and truly great leadership, says Todd. Here we share some tactics and strategies to help marketing leaders navigate inevitable organizational conflicts.


Use Discretion When Going to the Mat

Creative marketing types are often very collaborative, maybe even too collaborative sometimes, and Todd suggests applying the Pareto Principle (80% of your results are created by 20% of your focused efforts) when you ‘take issues to the mat.’ This means getting really focused about which issues matter most to you and your team, and exercising some discretion about which situations warrant aggressiveness. Below are some criteria Todd offers for making sure you’re not going to the mat too often.


Go to the mat when:

- Ethics are at risk of being compromised

- Social & reputational capital are at stake

- Your team feels strongly that you should

- Internal business decisions may compromise the customer experience

Especially when customers are involved, it is appropriate for marketing to step in and take issues to the mat, says Todd. Marketing is the right department to champion the customer perspective, and if another department is considering a trade off that might affect customers, then it’s time to speak up.


Enlist a Buddy

As we’ve discussed in a previous Marketing Organizational Leadership interview with Diane Menendez, learning to approach conflict from a positive, productive, and safe place begins with cultivating your awareness of and sensitivity to the emotions of your peers so that you can recognize when conflicts appear. Anything that you can do to develop your own emotional intelligence, says Todd, will help you to respond productively to conflict. “Emotional intelligence is a skill that can be learned and honed with practice, but there is still a heavy personality component to it,” says Todd, “which is why a buddy system can be really effective at helping you to keep your emotions in check. This buddy can attend meetings with you, help you to navigate your own emotions if they move into negative territory and steer conversations with cross-functional leaders in a positive direction.” When selecting a buddy, Todd suggests partnering with someone you trust, perhaps even a mentor – and definitely not a “yes man”. The most important key is that this buddy provides honest feedback to you. Additionally, your buddy should be comfortable speaking up to help you table any unproductive discussions in meetings.


Be Authentic!

In conflicts, issues tend to be emotionally charged. “One of the hardest parts about conflict is managing our negative emotions, but emotions aren’t altogether bad. In fact, I think we should all be much more authentic and use more positive emotions in the workplace,” says Todd. “This is my contrarian view, but emotional intelligence research, while very beneficial and important, has also helped to censor too many positive, raw emotions. Too often, we subdue emotions because we erroneously believe they are bad.”

The three most commonly recognized pillars of leadership are confidence, competence, and strength, says Todd. The fourth component integral to successful organizational leadership, in Todd’s view, is authenticity. “Because we’re human, we have a whole vocabulary of positive emotions to pull from, and we should use them,” explains Todd. We probably all long to be a little more human in the workplace, but how do we do that?

One way is to cultivate employee passion and help your employees to become passionately aggressive leaders. Going back to the 80-20 rule, the best leaders are aggressive about the top 20% of priorities. “Most people fail to push the most important issues hard enough,” says Todd. “Great leaders know when to push hard and how to be sensitive to other leaders in the process.”

Looking at passionate aggression from the standpoint of organizational norms, passion is best when found in the masses, which means that leaders need to validate it when they see it. Functional leaders can cultivate employees’ passion with these four steps.


Four Steps for Cultivating Employee Passion

1. Model it
2. Ask for it
3. Validate it
4. Reward it

The fourth step, Reward it, is key to sustaining passion in the workplace. You can ask for it and model it, but without validating and rewarding employees for their passionate aggression, passion will not be reinforced as a cultural norm. Finally, there are some occasions when passion should be kept in check because it might be mistaken or misunderstood. In those cases, marketing leaders should manage back to the positives to soften the emotional response.


Own Your Mistakes

With passionate aggression as a requisite to outstanding leadership, there will, necessarily at times, be misunderstandings and conflict. In these moments, leaders have a huge opportunity to build their social capital by being honest and owning their mistakes. Todd shared the example of a senior leader who overstepped her bounds with another executive. When a peer called her on the foul, she realized she was in the wrong and wanted to repair the relationship. Knowing how much the executive loved M&M’s, she brought them to her meeting as an apology, which set the conversation up on a positive note, all while strengthening the relationship. The moral of the story, says Todd, is that if you figure out the creative, non-confrontational means to approach conflict, you’ll actually end up strengthening relationships in the process. Great leaders own their mistakes and know when to ask for forgiveness.


Reframe Interpersonal Conflicts Around Issues

Sometimes conflicts become interpersonal, and that’s when leaders are called to reframe discussions around the issues, says Todd. In these situations, communication is more important than ever, and face-to-face communication always trumps email. Here are Todd’s suggestions for focusing a positive discussion around the issues:

1. Be concrete and provide specific, fact-based examples of the behaviors or issues in question
2. Find the right time to engage someone in a conflict discussion, which is probably sooner rather than later, assuming emotions are in check
3. Frame the conversation in terms of issues, not people
4. Frame the conversation in terms of benefits to the other party, and strive to gain alignment about the key issues



Conflict is healthy and normal, and when you learn how to manage it productively, interpersonal and cross-functional relationships are strengthened. As Todd says, “Great leaders know when to push hard and know how to be sensitive to other leaders in the process,” which is why it’s so important to sharpen your emotional intelligence skills by partnering with a buddy to help you read and be sensitive to the emotions of your cross-functional peers. Management research affirms the key role of aggression in the workplace, says Todd, who suggests putting yourself in a place where you’re asking for forgiveness at least once a year as an indication that you’re being aggressive enough to champion the most important Pareto issues and causes responsible for that critical 80% of results. Finally, when you do ask forgiveness, don’t forget to look for the creative, thoughtful, and non-confrontational means to approach conflicts.


What is your experience in managing conflict? Submit a comment below or join the discussion in the LinkedIn group, “Marketing Organizational Leadership.”



Parting Insights from HBR’s How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight

Research shows that teams who do not engage in productive conflict achieve lower performance, on average. Top performing companies and teams embrace conflict by working with more, rather than less information, which forces focus on the facts and away from interpersonal conflicts. Additionally, top performing companies generate multiple alternatives to problems, and when common goals frame the discussion of alternatives, conflict is less likely to degenerate into blame. Top performing companies are guided by CEOs who are neither weak nor autocratic and value the functional expertise of their senior leaders, which is an important pre-cursor to consensus with qualification. When consensus cannot be reached between executives regarding a course of action, the most relevant senior manager makes the decision with the group’s input. Consensus with qualification is a collaborative process whereby a range of alternatives can be efficiently weighed, while avoiding the negative conflict that can be created by forcing consensus.


Embracing Productive Conflict: A Summary

1. Focus on the facts and work with more, not less, information
2. Generate alternatives to instill healthy debate around an issue
3. Create common goals for a sense of ownership in shared outcomes
4. Operate with a balanced power structure (leader who is neither weak nor autocratic)
5. Seek consensus with qualification (consider multiple ideas, but one person has authority for the final decision)

Resource list

Dr. Dewett’s picks for further reading and insights…

1. Jehn & Mannix, 2001, the dynamic nature of conflict: a longitudinal study of intragroup conflict and group performance. Academy of Management Journal, 44: 238-251.
2. Eisenhardt, Kahwajy, & Bourgeois, 1997, How management teams can have a good fight. Harvard Business Review: 77-85.
3. Memeth, Personnaz, Personnaz, & Goucaol, 2004, The liberating role of conflict in group creativity: A study in two countries. European Journal of Social Psychology, 34: 365-374

Conflict Resolution DO’s

1. DO be selective when ‘taking issues to the mat.’ Going to the mat too often can erode your credibility, and you need to reserve it for the issues that truly matter most (remember the 80-20 rule)
2. DO go to the mat especially when there are ethical issues or when internal business decisions threaten to compromise the customer experience in any way; it’s always appropriate for marketing leaders to champion the customer perspective
3. DO cultivate your emotional intelligence skills and strive to improve your awareness of the emotions of your cross-functional leaders and peers
4. DO enlist a buddy to help you be sensitive to the emotions of your peers, help steer meetings away from potentially negative emotional territory, and help table any unproductive concepts in meetings
5. DO be authentic and own your positive emotions in the workplace
6. DO be passionately aggressive and use the 80-20 rule to focus on the most important 20%
7. DO own your mistakes, ask for forgiveness when it’s called for, and find the creative, non-confrontational means to apologize
8. DO cultivate employee passion and engagement: model it; ask for it; validate it; reward it
9. DO reframe interpersonal conflicts around the issues, NOT people, and position the conversation in terms of benefits to the other party

Conflict Resolution DON’Ts

1. Don’t blame: If there is conflict in your workplace, everyone had a role in creating it, and it’s everyone’s job to work proactively towards a resolution
2. Don’t allow conflict to become interpersonal; keep discussions specific and focused on the issues

** To view more articles in this series, click on the “Marketing Organizational Leadership” tag below.

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