How Can Leaders Manage Conflict in Today’s World – No Easy Answers

I am concerned.

Why?

Because of the lack of conflict. What? There is lots of conflict.

Yes there is. But it isn’t good conflict. Let me explain. There are two types of conflict. The first, good conflict, is about the issues a team faces. It occurs when people disagree about ideas, actions to take, solutions to problems. It involves back and forth discussion about the issue and may involve significant disagreement and maybe even slightly raised voices. This type of conflict, when managed correctly, results in better ideas, more complete solutions, and better action. Leaders must encourage good conflict. It makes the team stronger.

The second type is bad conflict. Bad conflict occurs when discussion goes from ideas and issues to attacks on individuals. A person’s race, religion, gender, or any other category should have no bearing on the issue at hand. Bad conflict will destroy the team so leaders must encourage a culture that stops it before it starts. Unfortunately, that’s hard to do because a larger culture has developed that encourages people to see all conflict as bad.

To fight bad conflict leaders must make it crystal clear that good conflict is essential but bad conflict will not be tolerated. Then they must comport themselves in that way. Lead by example.
But that’s not easy.

Here’s the problem. In our society today, it seems you either agree with a particular position or you are a bad person to be sent into the wilderness, never to be heard from again. In our leadership workshops we often hear from leaders who are frankly scared. How can they lead a team when everyone is spring loaded to be offended?

What’s a leader to do?

As leaders we must be willing to stand firm and say something like, “I disagree, but that doesn’t make either one of us a bad person. That I disagree does not mean anything more than that I disagree. I will explain my reasons, then I want to hear your thoughts on what I said.”

I wish I had a better answer, but in this case, I don’t. What I know is that leaders at all levels must stand firm against this idea that there can only be one opinion. If not, this bad conflict will destroy the team, then the company, and eventually our society.

What do you think?

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2 thoughts on “How Can Leaders Manage Conflict in Today’s World – No Easy Answers”

  1. Excellent points!

    I see the encouragement of good conflict as rising from a culture of mutual trust. When members of a group trust that they can express their opinion without being shouted down, retaliated against, or ignored, they are more likely to speak up. Trust is built by leaders soliciting the opinions of their team and modeling what productive dialogue on differing opinions looks and sounds like. Discussions on differing opinions or perspectives can look like opening doors to new possibilities rather than instant judgments of value. Eventually judgment must be made on which doorways are best explored and which are likely less beneficial, but the early discussion can be focussed on questions like: “What if … were true?” “Have you thought of…?” followed by statements like, “Here’s what I have seen…” “This part doesn’t make sense to me,” “This has been my experience…” The key is the productive dialogue that comes from active engagement in issue at hand.

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