Managing conflict well is a challenge for most nurse leaders. When the conflict is with your supervisor, it can be difficult and stressful. One of my colleagues recently talked about her dilemma with her boss. My colleague has been in a director role in her hospital for almost ten years. A new CNO was recently selected. Initially, their relationship was cordial but it has since deteriorated and become tense with many points of conflict about how to best manage my colleague’s areas of responsibility. Her question to me was whether it was possible to restore the relationship at this point or should she begin looking for another position.
In work done by researchers at the Center for Creative Leadership, unresolved, interpersonal conflict with one’s boss and upper management proved to be a primary issue leading to leadership career derailment. The type of conflict that my colleague described does not necessarily have to result in a resignation but it will take intentional work to make the relationship better.
Sharpe and Johnson in their work Managing Conflict with your Boss, describe the following examples of situations that can lead to conflict with one’s supervisor:
1. There is a lack of role clarity and alignment in your role.
A lack of role clarity can be a source of conflict if your supervisor has expectations that you may feel are not within the scope of your role. This often happens when roles have a reporting structure to more than supervisor.
2. You and your boss are at different vantage points.
When you and your boss have different viewpoints about what should be the priority in your role, this can lead to conflict. You may be a leader who values close relationships with front-line staff and your boss wants you to focus more attention on the business strategy or performance metrics.
3. You lack confidence in your boss’s ability.
This scenario can happen in situations where nurse leaders serve in interim positions and then are not selected for the role. They may feel very skeptical about the ability of the candidate who was selected.
4. Your boss lacks confidence in you.
Sometimes a few missteps early in a relationship can lead to a lack of confidence by your supervisor. You may then find yourself being questioned on every decision.
5. There is mismatch of values or style.
Leaders do tend to be most comfortable with team members that have their same vision, values and style. If you are considerably different in temperament or style then this can lead to conflict.
Assess your role in the conflict
Before any discussion with your boss about the conflict, it is important to assess what your role is in the deterioration of the relationship. Ask yourself what your response has been to the conflict. Do you try to keep the lines of communication open and keep your boss informed of your activities? Have you been deeply reflective or are openly discussing the conflict with others? Are you delivering on the promises that your make? Have you tried to be supportive in meetings? Did you engage in any political maneuvering to take your issues to a higher level? Have you sent any toxic emails? What are your expectations of your supervisor and are they unrealistic? Ask peers close to you who have observed you in interactions with your boss what you could do differently.
Resolving the conflict
Once you have developed a personal awareness of your role in the conflict, you are now ready to move to the conflict resolution stage. Conflict is best resolved in a face to face setting where both parties feel comfortable. It is often the case that conflict occurs when the lines of communication break down so reopening them is important. When discussing conflict, Sharpe and Johnson recommend that you craft a message to clarify your viewpoints and a desire to build a better relationship. It is also essential that ask for and work hard to understand your supervisor’s perspective on the situation. Look for common ground and brainstorm solutions. Then don’t leave without an action plan and a follow-up meeting to discuss progress.
Depending on the nature of the conflict, resolution may not occur immediately. There needs to be a strong desire on the part of both individuals to resolve the conflict. Relationships and trust are built and rebuilt over time. Interestingly, it is not uncommon for me to hear from a student with a close relationship to their boss that it did not start out that way so there is hope.