What Leaders Do with a Clash in Priorities

A clash in priorities is an opportunity for more strategic leadership.

We were discussing how to keep your team focused on what matters most when Nicolle, a team leader in a global communications business, asked, “What can I do when there’s a clash in priorities between my team and another department we must work with?”

This is a common question we hear from leaders at every level. When you find a clash in priorities, it’s easy to back off, become a victim, and make excuses—and many managers do just that.

But effective leaders navigate these conflicts—and build their careers and influence in the process. Master these strategies and you’ll become known for bringing people together to get results.

Navigate Your Narrative

The first step when you confront conflicting priorities is to get your story straight. No one woke up that morning with the goal of driving you crazy. Often, they’re not even aware there is a conflict. So, start by getting rid of any victim thinking and then tap into your power.

You’ve identified a conflict—and an opportunity to help everyone be more productive.

Cultivate Curiosity

When you find a clash in priorities, it helps to understand the problem. What, exactly is going on?

Let’s say another team isn’t prioritizing the work you rely on in order to achieve your goals. Start by having a conversation with your peer. For example: “I’ve noticed that the last three requests we submitted each came back in three weeks. We’re under the impression that these would be turned around in one week. I’m curious how it looks on your end?”

When you have these conversations, you’ll find many different causes. Occasionally, you might be working with an underperforming team, but most of the time, there’s a conflicting priority. They’ve moved your needs down the list because there’s something else going on.

As you have these curiosity conversations, try to listen and check for understanding about what you heard without getting defensive. For example, “So it sounds like you’ve had some people out sick and you’re getting pressure to deliver that product revision? Do I have that right?”

Create Clarity

Your goal with the curiosity conversation is to create clarity about the nature of the conflict. When the other person confirms your understanding of their situation, you can share your perspective.

For example, “My understanding is the project we’re working on together is supposed to deliver at the same time as the product revision. Do you understand it the same way?”

If they agree, then you can move to the next step. If they don’t understand the priorities the same way you do – that’s a good thing. You’ve created clarity: you’re each working from a different definition of success. Now that you know that, you can do something about it.

This happens all the time and savvy leaders are good at diagnosing these conflicts.

To create additional clarity, a common next step is to invite your peer to a conversation with your supervisor to get more clear priorities. When the three of you meet, you can quickly recap the clarity you’ve established and then ask for help understanding what matters most. For example:

“My team’s been having trouble meeting our milestones on this project because our data requests are taking longer than expected. When we talked about it, it became clear that we’re working from different priorities. I’m under the impression that both projects should be delivered at the same time, but her understanding is that her team needs to get that one done faster. We’d like to get some clarity on the timelines and priorities.”

Don’t treat these conversations as a chance to blame or excuse poor performance. It’s an objective statement of facts, the nature of the conflicting or unclear priorities, and a request for their perspective and help with clarity.

When you approach it this way, your leaders will often realize that they unintentionally created conflicting priorities and consequent conflict between teams. A quick conversation can clear it up and get everyone working from the same definition of success.

And yes, when that other team was truly underperforming, these conversations have a way of resolving that quickly.

Ask: How Can We …?

In some situations, the conflict results from multiple conflicting priorities from many leaders. Other times, there is no leadership guidance and you, your peers, or even vendor partners, must navigate the conflict yourselves.

This is an opportunity to ask a good “How can we…?” question. Eg: “How do you think we might meet both of our timelines? Is there a way I can help you? How can we help each other?”

Asking “How can we…” focuses everyone on possible solutions rather than getting paralyzed by the problem.

Schedule the Finish

Whether you got more clarity from your boss or worked out a mutual agreement with your peer, don’t leave the results to chance. Schedule the finish: as the agreement is made, schedule a time in a week or two where you will meet for 5 or 10 minutes to review the commitments you made and explore any new problems that might arise.

Your Turn

Conflicting priorities are a fact of life. Growing businesses naturally have tensions and they only become problems when they’re not addressed. When there’s a clash in priorities, it’s a fantastic opportunity for you to lead and make a more strategic impact.

We’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment and share your best strategy for resolving conflicting priorities.

Related: How to Stop Remote Work from Stealing Your Life