Early in my career, I was a member of a leadership team whose CFO, whom we’ll refer to as Jordan, was in the right seat. Jordan was a person who understood the role, played it well and had the Board’s confidence. Unfortunately, Jordan’s values did not align with organizational values. Therefore, Jordan was the wrong person for the organization. This wrong person issue played out most obviously in its impact on Jordan’s direct reports, who were fearful of their boss, avoided conflict, and therefore cynical and disengaged. And, because this issue went unaddressed for fear of losing a very talented technical resource, it created a credibility problem for leadership within the ranks.

I think you will agree that conflict is inevitable. And, in light of its ubiquitous nature, it’s unavoidable too. Yet, conflict avoidance is a common tactic. This is because conflict is very seldom a technical problem and most often an adaptive challenge. That is, conflict arises from misunderstandings or misaligned values and becomes increasingly destructive when left unaddressed. It’s a people problem. For leaders, conflict management is a crucial ability that requires a mindset shift: knowing conflict is inevitable and refusing to allow it to be destructive.

As I have reflected on my own career as a leader, I have come to see conflict management as a crucial leadership ability. More than just a technique for cooling heated heads, conflict management is an attitude that sees conflict as opportunity and uses it to fuel progress. For  leaders, understanding and managing conflict well creates the conditions within which we may cultivate personal authenticity, optimize team performance and build vibrant cultures. Conflict management is an antidote to the politics, silos and turf battles that plague many of our workplaces today – holding us back as individuals and teams. I’ll go out on a limb: expert conflict management may well be a magic pill. Let’s begin with the conflict management mindset.

Leadership Authenticity: Managing oneself in conflict informs the means for making team conflict productive

Changing The ConversationThe starting place for managing conflict is learning to manage oneself in a conflict situation. When we are confronted by someone who may be angry or frustrated, the natural tendency is to defend ourselves – to push back. While understandable, our counterattack serves only to escalate a bad situation. While we can’t control how others behave in conflict, we can control our response. Dana Casperson, author of Changing the Conversation, advises that in conflict situations we resist hearing attack and instead listen for the meaning behind the words. By being curious, rather than defensive, we position ourselves to get the information we need to make progress and improve relationships. When we listen to hear others’ interests rather than their positions, we create the possibility for a productive rather than destructive dialog. Now, this is not to say that we should become martyrs or subordinate our own needs. Rather, it is to say that as leaders facing conflict, we have a choice to make: will conflict be destructive or constructive in our lives? For a leader, managing oneself well in conflict manifests as strength under control, engenders trust and cultivates one’s authenticity; important muscles to build.

Strategy Execution: Undistracted by politics, silos and turf-battles, leaders can focus on doing less, better

Armed with an ability to manage oneself in conflict, those responsible for leading teams have a crucial leadership ability. Reflecting again on my own career, two teams come to mind easily – one was good, the other both bad and ugly. So, I asked myself, what was it that made these teams – both made up of capable, well-meaning people – perform differently? I’ve concluded that it was the context within which the two teams were operating and that the main determinant in setting that context was the role played by conflict within the team. On the bad, ugly team, my colleagues and I were guilty of letting the unspeakable topics simmer. When one of the unspeakables raised its head, it would be deflected or discussed superficially. In either case, it lived on in our hearts and minds, with no resolution, continuing to gain power.  

This scenario is, unfortunately, not uncommon on leadership teams. Conflict goes unmanaged and thereby leaves the elephant in the room free to sit as an obstacle to team progress. Over time, an already uncomfortable situation that is difficult to talk about becomes increasingly uncomfortable and unspeakable. Everyone sees the elephant, no one tends to it. Why?

Because all conflict on the team feels personal and is therefore quashed. Such teams find themselves with too many priorities, too little accountability and an inattention to results. Passive aggressiveness is common. They have the whole is less than the sum of its parts syndrome. Of course, these are just symptoms. The diagnosis is a lack of trust that leads to conflict avoidance and the inevitable gridlock that plagues unhealthy teams. What is needed to change this scene?

Trust is the elemental ingredient for cohesive, high performing teams. To build trustful relationships, leaders must embrace vulnerability as a virtue, and when we do, we build the courage we need to walk into conflict without fear. This is why the muscle created by managing our own response in conflict situations is such a crucial leadership ability.

Gino WickmanRather than shy away from the uncomfortable topics, we learn to go to the danger in the words of Gino Wickman. That is, we don’t allow the elephants to sit as an obstacle to progress. Instead, we address the difficult topics in a way that is direct and humane and with the best interest of the whole in mind. Although going to the danger can be uncomfortable, it also promotes open, honest conversations that often create a sense of relief on the team. This relief comes because everyone sees the obstacle, is frustrated by the impasse, and is unburdened when the obstacle is finally addressed and removed; conflict becomes constructive.

While it takes courage to address the unspeakables, we need not look far to find the source of that courage. It’s in the promise of the relief. When leaders master conflict management, our own work becomes more joyful. This enlivened mindset clears the way to more focused, better work where we deliver outcomes that elevate teams and organizations. We come to understand that conflict management is not about being confrontational; it’s about being a leader committed to doing good work, delivering great results and enriching cultures.

Vibrant Culture: As goes leadership, so goes the rest of the organization

Leadership team members have a brand name within organizations – all painted with the same brush, whether they like it or not. And, whether news is good or bad, leadership is central. I have a mentor who used to say,

If you don’t like what’s going on with the staff and you’re looking for the source of the problem, get a mirror.

Ouch!  

When leadership teams are unhealthy, the organizations they run suffer the consequences. This comes in the form of staff cynicism, ownership doubt and customer defection. Such organizations may succeed in spite of themselves, but they are falling short of what’s possible.

I firmly believe that the root of this evil is the leadership team’s inability to solve issues, i.e to manage conflict on the team. This inability to slay the elephants, which is due to distrust, frustrates team members, creates factions within the team, and causes the team to lose traction. None of this is lost on the staff. They see it and they respond in kind with their own dysfunction, which often results in a knee-jerk reaction from the also dysfunctional leadership team, thereby creating a vicious cycle of negative norms company-wide. We have a culture of dysfunction built upon the destructive nature of negative conflict. None of us wants to live here; it’s unintentional.

Why Should Anyone Work HereWith intention, leaders can positively impact culture. We can create truly authentic workplaces. In their book titled Why Should Anyone Work Here, authors Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones provide a formula for creating open, honest, productive workplaces that people love. Through years of research across many industries, Goffee and Jones provide for us a summary of their findings about what people want and need at work; all captured in the acronym D.R.E.A.M.S. As you consider the DREAMS list, consider also how a healthy leadership team – one that manages conflict productively within the team – positions itself to make dreams come true.

  • Difference: I want to work in a place where I can be myself, where I can express the ways I’m different and how I see things differently.
  • Radical Honesty: I want to know what’s really going on.
  • Extra Value: I want to work in an organization that magnifies my strengths and adds extra value for me and my personal development.
  • Authenticity: I want to work in a firm I’m proud of, one that truly stands for something.
  • Meaning: I want my day-to-day work to be meaningful.
  • Simple Rules: I don’t want to be hindered by stupid rules or rules that apply to some people but not others.

This is a wonderful list. And, as I consider each of the elements of DREAMS in the context of conflict management, Radical Honesty stands out for me. To be radically honest, leaders must embrace vulnerability; we must be honest with ourselves and honest with others. To be radically honest, leaders must work in service to the best interest of the whole. In my view, radical honesty is the characteristic leaders need to manage conflict well. This level of integrity will spill over into the teams we lead and infect everyone associated with our organizations. The leadership ability to manage conflict well is elemental to building open, honest, vibrant cultures. What more do we need as encouragement? Go to the danger!