Conflict Resolution

SuperHeroics Series: How Heroes Handle Infighting

Two highly anticipated star-studded films of the year are DC’s Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War. The titles foreshadow stormy days ahead. Batman fights Superman? Aren’t they both good guys?  And the beloved Avengers are forced to pick sides in the dual between what, independence and accountability?

Infighting is a common in all organizations, occurring even among team members we know and love. In the marketing world, our Hall of Justice is often filled with emotional turmoil.  A web designer insists on the latest high-tech web platform while the Creative Director insists that simplicity should rule the day. The client’s evolving feedback translates into expensive changes that blow the budget and fuel distrust.  The organization’s leaders battle over hard choices and scarce resources. Company succession plans get stuck when seasoned people can’t seem to move on. And personalities simply clash. Our level-headed Captain Americas work differently than our take-charge Iron mans. Throw a female super hero into the mix, with her own calling and her own ways to work ~ and you’ve got your very own civil war.

“We have optimized technology and business processes to a point of diminishing returns, but we have only scratched the surface of the performance gains to be realized through more effective human relationships. The way we communicate, the way we engage in conflict, the way we manage emotions, the way we handle trust and betrayal – these are increasingly linked directly to organizational performance.”

– Center for Association Leadership

Whose side are you on?

Disagreement is a normal and powerful part of a healthy organizational culture. Recognizing opposing views and working through them to increased levels of understanding often strengthens our relationships and produces new outcomes. However, unresolved disagreement can unravel the best of us. It can threaten our organization’s well-being and drag on its progress.  As conflict festers, it drains energy, depletes resources and limits our fullest potential. It can also manifest into Hulk-like hostility and aggression.  (Were it so simple that a Snickers bar would provide us a tasty solution!)

Many companies invest in formal conflict resolution policies with training programs based upon validated problem-solving models; yet culture is unrestrained, and does not respond to the established system of formal rules, process and authority. The institutionalized approach is not always effective in creating desired social cohesion.

Little management attention is paid to informal conflict resolution; those everyday norms and behaviors that govern the way work actually gets done and the way differences are addressed (or not).

Justice Leagues

Our internal and external resources, from agency suppliers to customers to consultants, come together in dynamic ways. Today’s super hero leader needs a decoder to decipher cultural norms and work effectively across the wide range of collaborators, competitors and sometimes enemies we face.

We can look for insights from academic scholars who study organizational cultures as they group them by factors. For example, socialability cultures are characterized by highly communicative exchange networks and shared values. In contrast, solidarity cultures are characterized by individualized or silo’d goals focused on control, status or achievement. Other cultural studies contrast collaborative teaming environments (where all boats rise with the tide) vs win/loss team environments (where I beat you or you beat me).

High conflict oriented cultures show a negative impact on organizational effectiveness and viability that no surprise, contributes to employee burnout; Collaborative conflict cultures positively impact the organization’s cohesion, potency and effectiveness, according to a Conflict and Culture Study published in Applied Journal of Psychology.

Call to Awesomeness

Yet organizational cohesion is difficult to come by. Renowned leadership guru and U of M Business professor, Noel M. Tichy suggests the tantalizing prospect that organization culture may be the ticket by which strategic managers can influence and direct the course of their organizations.

A leader’s job is to work towards a culture of teamwork to serve the greater good. Cultural intelligence is indeed the strategic lens by which we make better people decisions. Beyond hiring, this applies to the diverse partners we engage as we design our own superhero alliances. Together we can harness the power of the collective.

Don’t be Evil

Google often credits its business success to its moral philosophy, and nurtures a workplace culture designed to encourage values like creativity and loyalty. Their Founders motto of “Don’t Be Evil” may be open to interpretation but it sends a powerful message that not only influences company’s policies and decisions, it aligns day to day attitude and behavior. Leveraging massive amounts of data to explore cultural cohesion, Google leaders articulate desired managerial behaviors to influence a positive culture, starting with my favorite: Be a Good Coach.

“Trust and mutual respect among employees and users are the foundation of our success, and they are something we need to earn every day…”
-Google Code of Conduct.


Regrettably in the comic book movie genre there are few front-line female superheroes. But how they survive the infighting is worth noting. Despite gender scrutiny surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in Captain America: Civil War, her character Natasha is credited with team smarts: she engages with the others based on her known strengths. She discerns when to hang back, especially when others brawl head to head with little purpose. According to a published interview with the actress, in this film the character relies on her moral compass. She has “…this kind of greater calling and this huge pull towards doing what’s right for the greater good. And she chooses that, and it’s a really heroic thing that she does….”

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To lead our own epic lives we often find ourselves in the heat of battle. Sometimes we have to get in the fight to make a difference.  We can do this boldly and confidently if we engage with sharpen cultural awareness, if we participate from a position of our known strengths, and we continue to engage with our vetted and chosen alliance partners

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