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How to shift conflict mismanagement

Leaders mismanage conflict for various reasons, including unhealthy cultural coping behaviors. Marlene Chism offers some solutions.

5 min read



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With over two decades of working with leaders at various levels within various organizations, I had an epiphany several years ago: Almost every conflict that escalates, from EEOC complaints, unwanted turnover and lack of engagement all the way to a toxic work environment, can be traced back to this: A conversation that should have happened but didn’t. The result is a culture of avoidance.

Conflict avoidance stems from believing conflict is a problem. But conflict is not a problem. Mismanagement is the problem. Here are three common reasons leaders mismanage conflict and how to make the shift.

Invisible forces

Carl Jung, the prominent Swiss psychologist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology, famously stated that “until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate.” This quote underscores Jung’s belief that unless individuals become aware of and confront the workings of their unconscious mind, they may feel controlled by unseen forces and unable to steer their lives in a meaningful way.

In simple terms, we human beings are driven by internal, invisible forces that can only be changed once we become aware of the underlying structures. One invisible structure is the belief that we should avoid conflict at all costs. 

How to make the shift: Consider examining and changing your definition of conflict. I suggest seeing conflict as opposing drives, desires and demands. Visualize arrows going in opposite directions, realizing that your boss, colleague or employee has a different drive, demand or desire than you. This new definition allows space for curiosity. What drives them? What desires are in competition with your demands? For example, most front-line employees don’t understand the demands of their leaders or the organizational goals. By opening dialogue about the various demands, drives and desires, you create understanding, collaboration and alignment. 

Coping behaviors

Note the times a department has reorganized due to the inability to address team conflict. Count the times a new manager was hired to fix a high-conflict department rather than supporting the current leader to deal with departmental drama. How many notices are given because someone can’t get along with their supervisor? Determine how much time and money was invested in hiring consultants to facilitate 360 feedback to justify termination.  All of these activities relate to coping behaviors of avoiding, appeasing and aggression. 

How to make the shift: Connect the dots between coping behaviors and the costly mistakes that affect retention and job satisfaction. Once you make the business case for the losses, build a plan and a budget for developing leaders at every level to increase conflict capacity so that they have the skills and confidence to initiate conversations that get results

Conflict capacity

Many front-line and middle managers tell me they feel insecure and uncertain about their decision-making as well as how to build accountability. They hesitate to make decisions because they fear their boss won’t support them. Directors hide problems from their VP because they want to be seen as competent. Their executive boss has likely said something like, “I’m not here to babysit,” or “I’m a hands off leader.” Their interpretation is, “I hired you to do this job, so don’t bother me.” The domino effect is the VP or senior leader being blindsided when the problem turns into a legal risk. 

How to make the shift: Recognize that conflict capacity is multifaceted and includes three components: skills development, the inner game and culture. Often, one of the three is missing when it comes to conflict management inside an organization. More than skills are required. For example, watching a one-hour video or taking a full day of training is often only sustainable with the second component, the inner game. The inner game is the individual’s commitment to building awareness and character. 

No matter what kind of training is encouraged and no matter what type of character the leader has, if the culture doesn’t align, the efforts will not be sustainable. For example, if executives avoid bad news and difficult conversations, don’t expect the newly promoted director to right the ship. They won’t be supported, and as a result, the new leader learns quickly to align with the example in front of them. If managers aren’t making decisions, it could either be the internal game, or it could be cultural: they’re following examples at the top, or their past decisions have been overridden to keep peace. 

Mismanaged conflict is costly to individuals, teams and organizations. Take a birds-eye view to examine how mismanaged conflict affects your organization and develop a plan to expand conflict capacity companywide. 


Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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