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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