Learn to Love Conflict

It’s almost universal. When I talk with leaders about conflict, they say they don’t like it. Seasoned leaders may add, “Of course I don’t like conflict – who does? But I’ve learned to deal with it.” I wonder, though. Why is conflict so disliked, even by those who have developed skills to address it? Could you instead imagine welcoming conflict as valuable, and feeling no anxiety about it?

To understand why we dislike conflict, and to possibly change our attitudes towards it, we need to look beyond the phenomenon of conflict itself, and focus instead on our beliefs and assumptions about conflict, and our emotional tendencies in conflict situations, which flow from those beliefs and assumptions.

Reflect on a recent situation where you were in conflict with another individual or group about something. What meaning or significance did you attach to the conflict? What did you believe was at stake for you? Generally, managers’ answers to this question fall into one of the following buckets:

Definitions about what conflict is

  • it’s a win-lose game – I want to win, I might lose
  • there’s only one “right” way to do things (my way)
  • If I don’t bring it up, maybe it will go away

Personal fears about what might happen to me – threats to my source of reward or satisfaction

  • I don’t want to displease others
  • I don’t want to have to let go of this outcome or approach
  • I am afraid others will take advantage of me
  • I need to give others their way
  • I don’t want to stop seeing the other party as the ‘bad guy’
  • I’m afraid of having to change, making a mistake, losing face, being hurt, hurting someone else, what might happen in the future, being disrespected or embarrassed, etc.

Prescriptive beliefs about what “should” be true for me

  • If I’m in conflict, I’m doing something wrong
  • I should get my way, or else things would be a disaster
  • I shouldn’t have to deal with frustration
  • They should pick up on my concerns without my saying them directly

As a result, how do you feel when you experience a conflict? self-righteous? angry? indignant? ashamed? afraid? anxious? frustrated? When you’re feeling any of those emotions, it’s time to step back and reflect on your own thinking.

How might you re-frame your thinking about conflict? What could you say to yourself to counter those angry/frustrated/fearful voices in your head? What if you considered conflict as simply… information? As Kenneth Cloke says, it’s “the sound made by the cracks in a system.” Something’s not working, and that provides an opportunity to re-think.

What specific opportunities are present where there is conflict? Well, first of all, you have the opportunity to articulate your true thoughts and feelings about the issue, and your interests and concerns about how the issue might or might not be addressed. And, conversely, you have the opportunity to better understand the other party’s true thoughts, feelings, interests, and concerns.

But, when the conflict is in an organization, here’s the biggest opportunity. Such conflict is often a playing-out of inherent tensions between legitimate values or goals.  For example, I coached several leaders in a large consulting firm. A predictable conflict played out all over the firm – between leaders responsible for selling projects to clients, and those responsible for delivering those projects once sold. The sales leaders are responsible for maximizing revenue, and often they believe they must make commitments to clients in order to close the deal. Meanwhile, those commitments place pressure on the delivery leaders, who are responsible for making sure delivery occurs on time and within budget, and they believe that sales leaders are giving away the farm to clients, while they end up holding the bag. It’s an inevitable, built-in tension between two important goals. Nobody’s right and nobody’s wrong. How can those leaders come together, step outside their frustrations and narrow viewpoints, and have a dialogue about how to manage this tension in a way that supports both sets of interests?

The leadership writer Ron Heifetz argues that the essential quality of leadership is the ability to resolve competing values – to step back and see the conflict as information, to bring together the competing viewpoints and broker a resolution that’s broader than me getting what I want or you getting what I want, a resolution that actually advances the organization’s goals.  See how your perspective shifts – and your behavior changes – when you intend to be that kind of leader. And let us know how it goes!

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