Leadership Fault Lines

“Fault lines” are the places in relationships and workplace cultures where misunderstandings most easily surface. The term “fault” has two meanings here. A fault line, geologically speaking, is a weak spot, a place where larger tectonic plates collide. In organizations, the fault lines are often drawn between formal functions, departments, or work units, between separate locations such as a central office and field offices, but they are also anywhere people are having trouble with one another. A team divided into cliques also has a fault line, as does a manager at odds with colleagues who report to her, or the peers who must work together but who also have a “personality conflict.” The second meaning of the term, “fault” is a place where we frequently “find fault,” most easily blame, look at others as the problem more than ourselves.

Fault lines define the sensitive ground where human beings in organizations are particularly interdependent because of how the work combines with and influences their relationships with one another. Where there is interdependency, there is always the potential for conflicts to emerge. Most often when people request that roles be clarified, that’s just code for one or more fault lines bothering people.

We intuitively know ways to address fault lines, but knowing is not the same as removing their power. That requires action. For example, we can begin to bridge differences by exploring the origins of a conflict and the historical baggage that has kept it going; by making more conscious the positives and strengths on each side of the line; by jointly creating ground rules and monitoring alignment with them; by looking for collaborative solutions that meet the needs of all parties; by helping people get to know each other as individuals, not stereotypes. And, also, of course, searching out the bad processes, disorganization, and systemic aspects of the work that are simply not working. A crappy system that means one department has to constantly pick up the slack for another or correct all its mistakes is a shared problem that must also be resolved.


Gooseneck barnacles and muscles

Focusing on both improving relationships and work processes is all good, but it is not likely to be enough. For a fault line to really disappear the sides must see the conflict as a reflection of their own need to grow personally and as a team. The toughest work of conflict management and resolution work is to help people actually focus on their own development, on their own stuff, and not worry so much about what the other side is doing. This is one of the bigger challenges leaders face, in part because as leaders we have to actively model that growth ourselves.

Sometime ago, for example, I was contacted by the managing director of small firm in which a threesome of managers were fighting with one another over workloads, priorities, and the way they were treating each other. The threesome, who all reported to the director, had been fighting for over two years. The leader called to ask me what she should do to intervene. “They are all blaming each other for the problems,” she said to me. It seemed at first the director was legitimately looking for advice on what could be done, and she initially showed some willingness to be directly involved in a solution, but as we continued to evaluate what she might do, it also became clear that she, too, was part of the problem. She, also, was blaming the others for their behavior, and what she wasn’t willing to do was take a direct, engaging approach to the conflict, to call it out for what it was — a major distraction and burden to the organization — and to assign herself the messy role of leading out of it. It seemed to me she wanted to find a way around her part, citing the politics of the situation and how her own reputation might be hurt if she stepped in with too much personal investment. In the end it seemed she wanted to find a silver bullet — or someone else to deal with the problems on her behalf — more than she wanted to lead.

The failure to deal with the fault lines of organizations is a leadership failure — one often characterized by a variety of “escapes,” such as:

Amplified fault-finding. The leader making others totally responsible for the conflict’s continued existence — a subtle form of blame that is particularly self-protective, especially when it’s evident others are genuinely stuck.

Hiding. The leader pretending the conflict is “not that big a deal” precisely at the point it requires personal action and boundary setting.

Excusing. The leader making the problem more complex by claiming the participants are all doing good technical work, as if relationship problems are a less important part of their performance.

Delegating. The leader looking for someone else, a coach or consultant or other manager to make responsible for resolution, rather than taking on a clear portion of responsibility.

Playing helpless. The leader making the situation sound inevitable, as if he or she were merely a powerless bystander or victim of sorts.

Rationalizing. The leader announcing understandable “good reasons” for not doing what is in fact appropriate, although not risk free.

On this last point, one can always find the understandable “good reasons.” Money, time, politics and the negative views of others for addressing something unpopular are all good ones. I’m sympathetic — and yet it is a such a tragic situation when a leader simply gives up her or his personal power, power that others count on to address what’s obviously happening around them. The “good reasons” are usually additional aspects of the situation that also must be handled, part of the system that holds the fault lines in place.


Broken Sand Dollar Shell

If you find yourself caught, know that you can “escape the escapes.” Do this by reflecting on the long-term nature of your own development as a leader. Start by identifying your inner fault lines, the inner work you want to do and the outer manifestation of that work that you are looking for from yourself. If you do that, you can also begin to ask yourself whether the outer fault lines offer an opportunity to your own leadership development over time — if in fact, you are to lead at all. And, of course, the outer fault lines usually do, prominently appearing in your career at just the right moment to help you confront yourself and ask more of your own self-knowledge, behavior and sense of responsibility. Once you know what change in yourself is called for, you can begin to plot the steps that you want to take. You might desire some coaching or a mentor to help you brainstorm and follow through. But it won’t be asking others to do the job for you. The coaching will be about your inner changes and how you want to carry them out.

Here’s a positive example. A leader faced with a year-long conflict between two members on her team (division heads representing marketing and facilities management) gently but firmly coached each of these reports on her expectations for change. However, over time, the leader could see this process was not working, and it was actually drawing her deeper into the role of an arbiter — certainly not the role she had signed up for. She needed to find another way. Ultimately, she decided to bring the matter up at a meeting of her full management team — six people, including the two who were fighting. There, others could report their own perceptions and feelings about the fault lines that had grown up between the two, and also between the two and the rest of the team.

The leader began by making several observations about the impacts of the conflict on the team, including her own frustration with members’ complaints in the background about the two. She knew the team was expecting her to “fix it,” and yet no one, she said, including herself, was fully and openly addressing the problem head on. In saying these things, she set a tone of mutual responsibility that was cool enough to get everyone’s attention but warm enough not to induce blaming and judgment. “It’s a problem that needs to be solved,” she said, “just like any other problem brought to our team.” Others then volunteered how the fighting bled over into tensions within their own divisions and caused people to feel pressured about taking sides. They mentioned how some employees had used the fight as an excuse for their own combative behavior, and how problems getting projects completed had become an ongoing part of the conflict. The two sat quietly and listened, occasionally asking a question for clarification. They were then asked by the leader how they wanted to proceed. They quickly agreed to find a solution to their differences offline. The leader and team then asked them report back to the group at the next session on the changes they were making. The two acknowledged that the feedback had been “eye-opening” and also acknowledged their mutual embarrassment about letting the conflict “go too far.” The leader restated her expectations for everyone and acknowledged her own embarrassment about the situation, including how internally conflicted she’d been about taking the step of bringing the situation up in a group setting. “Obviously,” she said, “I’m learning, too.” In the next two weeks, the two division heads did a fine job of both ending the rancor and coaching their own reports on the changes that needed to be made in everyone’s conduct. When they reported back their changes, other group members and leader applauded their accomplishment as “a brilliant change for the better” and “a model for everybody.”

What’s clear here is that the leader took some risks. The meeting might have gone in a different direction. She might have been blamed for not doing her job, creating yet another fault line, so I hope you see that the solution isn’t always bringing up a conflict in front of a group and asking them to help solve it. That was a path this leader chose based on context and her knowledge of her team. For her, personally, the situation had been about “showing up,” bringing her own truth and vulnerability out into the open in a way she’d not done before. She had to dig deeper in herself and that was probably exactly what others saw and felt and what was inspiring to them.

In a sense, it could be said that the vast majority of fault lines in an organization are the result of people not growing, of leaders not growing. If you see it this way, then you’ll also know that this is not the problem of the other people. You’ll see it just as it is, as a challenge to your own growth. The good news is that when leaders focus on their own self-confrontation, they commonly discover their fears are no longer controlling them so much, and they may find a bit of compassion for themselves and for others in the process, too. Egos, confounded, come down from their high places of judgment and self-protection, giving everyone a chance to learn.


Razor Clam Shell

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  • This is brilliant. So much to absorb, so much to embrace.

    I just love when you say, Start by identifying your inner fault-lines, the inner work you want to do and the outer manifestation of that work that you are looking for from yourself. If you do that, you can also begin to ask yourself whether the outer fault-lines offer an opportunity to your own leadership development over time — if in fact, you are to lead at all.

    This post needs much reflection and your words need to be posted to the heart.


  • Dear Lolly~

    I deeply appreciate your comments and the passage you highlighted. Your affirmation of my words is such a wonderful gift! Thank you so much.

    All the best

  • Lolly is right! This post is a book, and a great one at that. Lots to ingest, indeed. Right now I am filled up with the ideas of responsibility, risk and growth as major factors in repairing fault lines. I love how you ultimately see them as a result of stalled growth. It is a great practice to view the conflicts within an organization as the container of the deeper creative questions the org. is struggling to unearth.

  • Dear Blair~

    This is wonderful: “It is a great practice to view the conflicts within an organization as the container of the deeper creative questions the org. is struggling to unearth.” Beautifully stated — and I’m a total believer. When I think back across my work with a variety of organizations, the conflicts have been doors to so many things — the definition of purpose, unique qualities of culture, the balance of structure to relationships — and the list goes on. Thank you for this gem!

    All the best

  • Hoda Maalouf (@MaaHoda) wrote:

    Dear Dan,
    I love this post because it provokes me to look beyond the fault-lines of an organization. I could actually think of a Relationship fault-line where we do grow actually, but separately, diverging from one another. If faults are left unsolved they could lead to even “front-lines”. I have been through that, and bringing back some peace to a relationship requires a lot of self questioning & dismantling.


  • Dear Hoda~

    That’s so true, that growth is not necessarily toward connection. In some cases, especially when one or both parties are unwilling to acknowledge or work on the fault-line, the result is further disconnection. Then the growth, for example, might cause a party to leave an organization or even an organization to fall apart.

    I think you are calling attention to a very important point, which is that growth is going to go on, one way or another. Whether it’s outcome is connection or separation is up to the players.

    Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your experiences and stories! All the best to you,


  • “Focusing on both improving relationships and work processes is all good, but it is not likely to be enough. For a fault line to really disappear the sides must see the conflict as a reflection of their own need to grow personally and as a team..” This is such a profound statement.
    Thank you for describing so clearly the need and process required to analyze and manage conflict. As with so much of leadership, it requires internal action before one can take visible steps to solve a problem.

  • Dear Lyn~

    Thank you, too, for stopping by and for your very kind remarks. Indeed, conflict demands internal work as much or more than external relationship building needed to resolve or manage the differences.

    I very much appreciate your emphasis on that internal side — for it is there the “profound” prevails — in the end giving meaning and value to hard work of true collaboration.

    All the best

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