Leaning into conflict

The day you make the leap from individual contributor to leader is the day you welcome continuous conflict into your life. Sure, there are conflicts at entry and mid-level positions, but it’s a fact that leadership and conflict go hand-in-hand, especially for those of us at the C-level charged with making hard decisions for our organizations.

Despite the regularity of conflict in a leader’s daily existence, it seems I see more and more conflict-averse executive teams who create unnecessary tension in their organizations because of an unwillingness to resolve issues by handling them as they arise. They fear bringing it up will increase the intensity level of the conflict or that it’s just easier to ignore than deal with – but the exact opposite is true. Avoiding conflict creates additional tension because it allows a situation to fester – we end up speculating on how others are feeling, projecting our own fears on the situation, and stressing in the interim about the eventual outcome.

Leaning into conflict is difficult

Conflict is difficult and complex but we need to embrace it as part of our work and personal lives.Being a generally affable person, I can’t say I enjoy conflict but I’ve found that leaning into it is a much better tactic than ignoring it, or letting it percolate and waiting for it to dissolve on its own. I do not believe that most people cause harm intentionally by manifesting unwarranted conflict, and that sometimes conflict arises because of a perceived or real lack of respect, communication, or appreciation.

It’s human nature to avoid conflict because of the accompanying negative emotions and anxiety. We are afraid of losing a customer’s business, assume our team won’t handle it well, or don’t want to hurt our loved one’s feelings. Leaning into conflict is handled in the same manner regardless of the type of relationship conflict arises in be it provider/customer, employer/employee, or significant other/significant other. It requires an all-encompassing perspective change on how we manage our relationships.

My charge in this article is that we as leaders, colleagues, husbands, wives, friends, and parents embrace conflict as a part of our lives, become more comfortable facing it, and use it to advance the goals of the involved parties.

Is it worth it?

Before we even begin addressing conflict, we must evaluate if the possible consequences are worth the risk. Some of the most successful people I know understand and take great care in picking their battles. If solving a conflict-situation isn’t absolutely critical to something that really matters to us, let it go. Let’s quantify really matters here – I’m talking wellbeing-inhibiting, success-contingent, ethically-invasive, world-hunger-solving matters. Letting it go is easier said than done for some of us, but simply going through the exercise of recognizing the importance level of the conflict benefits our perspective.

Because if we get honest with ourselves, in the grand scheme of things, most conflict just doesn’t matter.

If after evaluating the necessity of leaning into the conflict, we still decide the potential reward is worth the risk, we can begin formulating a conflict mitigation plan.

Building trust through conflict resolution

It’s important to recognize that we are not inviting harm into a relationship by leaning into a conflict. To the contrary, attempting to ease conflict shows we care about the other person and are interested in solving discontent that exists, ultimately making a relationship stronger. Working through conflict builds trust, and taking a proactive approach leads to a better outcome because discussing varying decisions, opinions, and beliefs often leads to learning and compromise.

A while ago, I inadvertently created a conflict with one of my direct reports. I was insanely busy, working on an important proposal, and the employee brought forward a piece of work on which they spent a significant amount of time and took great pride in. I barely gave the work a second look, and told the employee that we would revisit it much later because it wasn’t a priority. That small interaction cultivated an ever-growing feeling that I did not appreciate my employee, resulting in decreased job satisfaction and anxiety for the employee when we spoke in our regular meetings. I could tell something was wrong and instead of ignoring it, I leaned into it and asked, “Is there was something I did that offended you?” What I learned is that I hadn’t prioritized the relationship, and had I not brought up the situation, it could have cost me a valuable team member.

Throughout my career, the amalgamation of similar instances has led me to my current stance on conflict – to resolve it before it becomes an even bigger problem.

Recommended best practices for managing conflict

  • Don’t let time worsen conflict – work to resolve conflict as quickly as possible
  • Go into the conversation with the goal being to resolve the conflict – make sure you don’t enter a discussion just for the sake of airing grievances, and establish that position up front
  • Succinctly share your perspective – remember, the conflict exists because of opposing views, so taking too much time to explain your side can give the impression you feel your opinion is more important
  • Work to understand the other person’s perspective – the old adage “put yourself in their shoes” is good advice in conflict situations, so ask questions to help understand their point-of-view
  • Move forward together – decide how to mutually proceed and follow through with what was decided, don’t revert to old behaviors once a path forward has been forged
  • Treat the conflict with an appropriate amount of sensitivity – no one likes to be told their baby is ugly so be aware of tone and how you message what you are trying to communicate

Learning to effectively mitigate conflict makes for healthier, happier, and more successful relationships. When we develop this ability based on the right principles, we enable more candid conversations in the future.

A founder of ArchPoint and Chairman of the Board, Richard Spoon helps clients reach strategic goals by managing through daily business challenges to get to the work that produces results. Click here to contact Richard.

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