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Leadership and Conflict

Leadership and Conflict

Here’s the thing – leadership and conflict go hand-in-hand. There’s no getting around the fact leadership is a full-contact sport, and if you cannot address conflict in a healthy, productive fashion then you should not be in a leadership role. I would submit effectively dealing with conflict is one of the most valuable skills a leader can possess.

From my perspective, the issues surrounding conflict resolution can be best summed-up in three words…”Deal With It.” While you can try and avoid conflict (bad idea), you cannot escape conflict…The fact of the matter is that conflict in the workplace is unavoidable. It will find you whether you look for it (good idea – more later) or not. The ability to recognize conflict, understand the nature of conflict, and to be able to bring swift and just (notice I didn’t say fair) resolution to conflict will serve you well as a leader – the inability to do so may well be your downfall.

How many times over the years have you witnessed otherwise savvy professionals self-destruct because they wouldn’t engage out of a fear of conflict? Putting one’s head in the sand, and hoping conflict will pass you by, is not the most effective methodology for problem solving. Conflict rarely resolves itself. In fact, conflict normally escalates if not dealt with proactively and properly. It’s not at all uncommon to see what might have been a non-event manifest itself into a monumental problem if not resolved early on.

One of my favorite examples of what I described in the paragraph above is the weak leader who cannot deal with subordinates who use emotional deceit as a weapon of destruction.  Every workplace is plagued with manipulative people who use emotion to create conflict in order to mask a lack of substance. These are the drama queens/kings that when confronted about wrongdoing and/or lack of performance are quick to point the finger in another direction. They are adept at using emotional tirades that often include crocodile tears, blameshifting, little lies, omissions, half truths and other trite manipulations in an attempt to avoid being held accountable. The only thing worse than what I’ve just described is leadership that doesn’t recognize it and/or does nothing about it. Real leaders don’t play favorites, they don’t get involved in drama, and they certainly don’t tolerate manipulative, self-serving behavior.

Developing effective conflict resolution skill sets are an essential component of a building a sustainable business model. Unresolved conflict often results in a loss of productivity, stifles creativity, and creates barriers to collaboration. Perhaps most importantly for leaders, good conflict resolution ability equals good employee retention. Leaders who don’t deal with conflict will eventually watch their good talent walk out the door in search of a healthier and safer work environment.

While conflict is a normal part of any social and organizational setting, the challenge of conflict lies in how one chooses to deal with it. Concealed, avoided or otherwise ignored, conflict will likely fester only to grow into resentment, create withdrawal or cause factional infighting within an organization. Addressed properly, conflict can lead to change, innovation, personal and professional growth, and countless other items that often end-up as missed opportunities. I would challenge you to change your view such that you begin to perceive conflict as the gateway to opportunity.

So, what creates conflict in the workplace? Opposing positions, competitive tensions, power struggles, ego, pride, jealousy, performance discrepancies, compensation issues, just someone having a bad day, etc. While the answer to the previous question would appear to lead to the conclusion that just about anything and everything creates conflict, the reality is that the root of most conflict is either born out of poor communication or the inability to control one’s emotions. Let’s examine these two major causes of conflict:

Communication: Firstly, if you reflect back upon conflicts you have encountered over the years, you’ll quickly recognize many of them resulted from a lack of information, poor information, no information, or misinformation. Let’s assume for a moment you were lucky enough to have received good information, but didn’t know what to do with it – that is still a communication problem, which in turn, can lead to conflict. Clear, concise, accurate, and timely communication of information will help to ease both the number and severity of conflicts. Secondly, conversations are not competitions – stop trying to win them and just focus on enriching them. Lastly, while it’s true every interaction is a chance to learn, grow, teach and mentor, it’s important for leaders to remember these interactions can be more than refining moments, they can be defining moments.

Emotions: Another common mistake made in workplace communications that leads to conflict is letting emotions drive decisions. I have witnessed otherwise savvy executives place the need for emotional superiority ahead of achieving their mission (not that they always understood this at the time). Case in point…have you ever witnessed an employee throw a fit of rage and resign their position in the heat of the moment? If you have, what you really watched was a person indulging their emotions rather than protecting their future. Let me be clear – I’m not suggesting leaders become robots, but rather they develop better emotional intelligence so they can more successfully convert stumbling blocks into opportunity.

The very bane of human existence, which is in fact human nature itself, will always create gaps in thinking & philosophy,  and no matter how much we all wish it wasn’t so…it is. So the question then becomes how to effectively deal with conflict when it arises. It is essential for organizational health and performance that conflict be accepted and addressed through effective conflict resolution processes. While having a conflict resolution structure is important, effective utilization of conflict resolution processes is ultimately dependant upon the ability of all parties to understand the benefits of conflict resolution, and perhaps more importantly, their desire to resolve the matter. The following tips will help guide you in more effectively handling conflicts in the workplace:

  1. Define Acceptable Behavior: You know what they say about assuming…Just having a definition for what constitutes acceptable behavior is a positive step in avoiding conflict. Creating a framework for decision making, using a published delegation of authority statement, encouraging sound business practices in collaboration, team building, leadership development, and talent management will all help avoid conflicts. Having clearly defined job descriptions so that people know what’s expected of them, and a well articulated organizational framework to allow for effective communication will also help avoid conflicts.
  2. Hit Conflict Head-on: While you can’t always prevent conflicts, it has been my experience the secret to conflict resolution is in fact conflict prevention where possible. By actually seeking out areas of potential conflict, and proactively intervening in a just and decisive fashion, you will likely prevent certain conflicts from ever arising. If a conflict does flair up, you will likely minimize its severity by dealing with it quickly.
  3. Understanding the WIIFM Factor: Understanding the other person’s WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) position is critical. It is absolutely essential to understand other’s motivations prior to weighing in. The way to avoid conflict is to help those around you achieve their objectives. If you approach conflict from the perspective of taking the action that will help others best achieve their goals you will find few obstacles will stand in your way with regard to resolving conflict.
  4. The Importance Factor: Pick your battles and avoid conflict for the sake of conflict. However if the issue is important enough to create a conflict, then it is surely important enough to resolve. If the issue, circumstance, or situation is important enough, and there is enough at stake, people will do what is necessary to open lines of communication and close positional gaps.
  5. View Conflict as Opportunity: Hidden within virtually every conflict is the potential for a tremendous teaching/learning opportunity. Where there is disagreement there is an inherent potential for growth and development. If you’re a CEO who doesn’t leverage conflict for team building and leadership development purposes you’re missing a great opportunity. Think about it like this – if you avoid conflict, you’re avoiding growth, change, and innovation. In doing so, you’re also avoiding leading.

Bottom line…I believe resolution can normally be found with conflicts where there is a sincere desire to do so. Turning the other cheek, compromise, forgiveness, compassion, empathy, finding common ground, being an active listener, service above self, and numerous other approaches will always allow one to be successful in building rapport if the underlying desire is strong enough. However, when all else fails and positional gaps cannot be closed, resolve the issue not by playing favorites, but by doing the right thing – lead.

As always, I’m interested in your thoughts, experiences and comments…

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    […] dealing with conflict […]


    January 24, 2011 at 12:12 am

    So well said Mike,

    I know for myself that managing conflict is not a 'natural' for me. It is one of those skills that I have to keep aware of – keep working on.

    Now this may be simply my level of experience, but your comment;

    "people will do what is necessary to open lines of communication and close positional gaps"

    I find too often people actively avoid doing what is necessary – even turning passive aggressive or resentful.

    And I find that personally to be a very tough row to hoe.

    Again – thank you .

    Elliot Ross


      January 24, 2011 at 12:14 am

      Hi Elliot:

      Thanks for sharing your observations. The statement you highlighted is 100% accurate if the conflict becomes impactful enough to them. If people are ignoring things it simply means one of three things: 1) They are fearful in which case you have to remove the fears; 2.) They don't feel equipped to address the issue in which case you must equip them, and; 3.) The issue hasn't risen to a level of significance to merit their involvement, in which case you must get them to understand why the conflict merits their involvement. .

      Closing gaps becomes much easier when you can position differences as non-adversarial and operate within a framework of trust. I know this can sound somewhat Utopian, however when the right perspective is combined with the proper communication skills in a safe environment you'd be amazed at the types of conflicts that can be resolved. I have personally helped to resolve conflicts that others had stated were irreconcilable by using the same concepts outlined in today's post. Thanks for sharing Elliot.

    Dr Sarah Morris

    January 24, 2011 at 12:16 am

    Oh! This is such a common problem for executives that I coach. If only we could learn the art of dealing with conflict in a collaborative and constructive way, I am sure that organisations would be transformed. Love your articel and the suggestions within it. May I also offer another suggestion? I am a particular fan of Susan Scott's approach to conflict. The methodology laid out in her book 'Fierce Conversations' is SUPERB! Many of my clients have used the framework and principles she lays out with great results. The wonderful thing about conflict is that if we approach it in the correct way and are prepared to 'stay in the fire' long enough, the chances of significantly enhancing the relationship to a place which is much better than the starting point is high. Thanks again. Sarah


      January 24, 2011 at 12:18 am

      Hi Sarah:

      Thanks for the comment and mentioning Susan Scott's Book. At it's core, the resolution of any conflict is found in the conflicted parties wilingness to engage in a healthy and productive fashion – no engagement, no resolution. Thanks for sharing your insight Sarah.

    Dan Rockwell

    January 24, 2011 at 4:49 pm


    As always, thanks for sharing your insights and perspectives.

    The issue of when to step in and when to wait it out is thorny. Too much intervention isn’t productive. But how much is too much?

    What are your thoughts?

    Productivity and work environment are central. When small conflicts bubble up and negatively impact productivity/atmosphere it’s time to step in.

    Should leaders step in sooner, before things bubble up? If the conflict is interpersonal it seldom goes away. If the conflict concerns procedures, getting things done, it may be worthwhile to let it play out. In the latter case, efficiencies may result. Let them figure it out.

    I find this a challenging area and appreciate your insights.



      Mike Myatt

      January 24, 2011 at 5:05 pm

      Hi Dan:

      Thanks for surfacing what I’m sure are questions not unique to you. I think most of us intuitively know which conflicts are likely to take care of themselves without need for intervention, and which ones are likely to escalate without intervention. That said, from my point of view the thing to focus on is the ripple effect. If the conflict, or potential for conflict, will bleed over into other areas or relationships in an adverse manner then good leaders will intervene on a proactive basis. Intervention early on is not only easier, but it is more likely to get positive traction. I hope these thoughts help Dan…

    Geoff Webb

    January 24, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    Great post, Mike. I’m stoked that you included #5 – View Conflict as Opportunity. That’s the one I think most people miss. For me, that’s the #1 motivation for NOT ignoring conflict. Conflict management isn’t about returning everything to the status quo; I think it’s about using the conflict to improve – your people and your organization. Thanks!

      Mike Myatt

      January 24, 2011 at 5:37 pm

      Hi Geoff:

      Thanks for sharing the great insights. You’re absolutely spot-on in your assessment that conflict resolution isn’t about restoring something that was, but rather about the creation of something improved. Well said Sir.

      Dan Rockwell

      January 24, 2011 at 6:27 pm



    Isidoros Papamichalis

    January 24, 2011 at 10:00 pm

    Hi Mike,

    this excellent topic made me think of the following question:
    “how can a leader, who believes that engaging in conflict is necessary, motivate his/her team to support him/her in this conflict? i.e. what are the characteristics of conflict that people may be willing to get involved in?”

    Ethical? Constructive? Unavoidable?. . .

    Tom hicks

    September 6, 2012 at 3:15 pm

    Great artiticle. Someone has to be the adult.

      Mike Myatt

      September 6, 2012 at 4:23 pm

      Thanks Tom – couldn’t agree more with your thought about needing more adults in leadership positions.

    Susan Penn

    September 14, 2012 at 5:23 pm

    Excellent article, and inability to deal with conflict respectfully, constructively and in a timely manner will quickly undermine the leaders credibility and the progress of an organization.

    Christine Nelum Ekanayake

    October 29, 2012 at 5:33 am

    Lovely thoughts! Good findings! Where are the solutions?

    Diana Abu-Zuaiter

    March 24, 2013 at 9:26 am

    Interesting post…There are may types of leaders. As you said real leaders don’t get involved in drama…but there are different types of leaders out there, depending on the culture of the organisation. There are leaders out there that provoke a conflict because they see it as positive and necessary in order to reach maximum effectiveness. Don’t know how effective that is indeed, but one thing for sure is that avoiding conflict is an ineffective attitude for problem solving, you are right! Here is a perfect example of lack of communication at the right time, at a high level of management: http://bit.ly/104Xc1i


    October 8, 2013 at 9:39 am

    Conflict resolution when done correctly can still yield positive results fin an organization. Valuable lessons can be drawn from conflicts and leaders must not miss out on this. What is important is for the leader to remain neutral to hear both sides. I totally agree that issues must be resolve objectively and not subjectively. Meaning, stay with the facts and avoid attacking the persons involved. Keeping communication lines is open is also key towards conflict resolution.


    October 22, 2013 at 10:16 pm

    This is a great article for leaders, managers and any body in a team atmosphere, as it develops a pathway of creating a culture of ownership and growth. Without taking from the article, I believe that all parties in a team have a responsibility to create a safe culture in order to achieve the ultimate goals, which is our personal dreams. Loved the read…

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