Many leaders view conflict as a problem to be avoided, but conflict is not the real problem: Mismanagement is. Seeing conflict as a problem builds invisible structures, (mindsets, narratives, emotions and desires) that contribute to mismanagement such as avoiding, aggression or appeasing. Interpreting conflict as a benefit flips the switch from avoidance to advancement in leadership capability. Here are four ways to view conflict as a benefit and catalyst for leadership growth.
1. Transform anger
Unresolved conflict triggers anger, and anger inhibits the ability to think from the pre-frontal cortex, the executive brain. When anger catches you off guard, it’s easy to become overwhelmed, lash out or react destructively. Anger and conflict are so intertwined that avoiding red flags becomes a coping mechanism. Eventually red flags become the elephant in the room that inhibits productivity, effectiveness and personal happiness.
What to do: When you first experience anger, recognize it as energy that wants to go somewhere. Accept the emotions and feeling as they process through your body. Don’t hide from it, but don’t act on your impulse. Calm yourself and create a plan before taking any action that could result mismanagement or regret.
Questions to ask: What boundary has been crossed? What expectation has not been met? What anger response behavior do I want to change?
2. Inspire change
Resolved conflicts don’t have repetitive patterns; unresolved conflicts do. If you see repeating patterns it means there’s unresolved conflict, and unresolved conflict creates stagnation, resentment and team dysfunction. For example, I often hear managers say, “I’ve told them a thousand times and nothing changes,” or “They continue to miss deadlines even though I’ve given them support and resources.” An ongoing conflict for many managers is when to let someone go and how to do it gracefully. The conflict is about losing the relationship, being short staffed or being labeled as “unfair.”
What to do: Recognize repeating patterns that cause bottlenecks. Realize that the behavior allowed has become a standard and there’s a lack of accountability. Understand that people do what they do because it’s working for them, even at the cost of team collaboration. Instead of coping by blaming the situation or the other person, see the repetition as a clue that there’s an opportunity for change. The change might mean initiating a difficult conversation, setting an appropriate boundary or letting someone go with dignity.
Questions to ask: What is happening over and over again that should not be happening? What is this repeating pattern trying to tell me? What change do I need to make to shift the pattern?
3. Prioritize clarity
When enmeshed in conflict we lose clarity. We forget about what’s most important. We stop focusing on the mission, vision, values and desired end result. Instead, we prioritize winning the point, being right, stroking the ego or proving someone wrong.
What to do: Observe the quality of the conversation, and the behaviors of the individuals involved, including yourself. If the conversation is backward moving, finger-pointing, emotional or if the behaviors are condescending or disrespectful, clarity has been lost.
Questions to ask: Does our conversation and behavior support the mission, vision and values of the organization? Where have lower priorities replaced higher priorities? As a leader how can I use clarity for course-correction?
4. Exemplify personal growth
Conflict will always be part of life and leadership. Reading a book about conflict management, attending a full day workshop or getting coaching doesn’t mean there’ll never be mismanaged conflict. Skills development, practice and working on “the inner game” is what it means to embody and model personal growth. The inner game is a commitment to self-awareness, reflection, emotional integrity and a commitment to living in alignment with your highest values. By the way: You’ll never get a certificate, win an award or get college credits for working on your inner game. Winning the inner game is about a commitment to your own development.
What to do: Name the person or circumstance where you have the most unresolved conflict. Practice some of the skills you have learned. Notice your need to be right. Notice how you feel. Pay attention to your desire to fight or freeze.
Questions to ask: Am I willing to take full responsibility for resolving conflicts, or do I use coping strategies with the intention of changing the other person? Where do have knowledge, but lack the courage to put knowledge into practice? Could I teach conflict management skills to junior managers in such a way that they could claim success and change dysfunctional behaviors?
Don’t interpret conflict as a problem to avoid, or an obstacle to overcome. Change your interpretation to see conflict as a way to transform anger, inspire change, prioritize clarity and grow personally.
Marlene Chism is a consultant, speaker, and the author of From Conflict to Courage: How to Stop Avoiding and Start Leading (Berrett-Koehler 2022). She is a recognized expert on the LinkedIn Global Learning platform. Connect with Chism via LinkedIn, or at MarleneChism.com
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