Why Conflict Is Good–And How to Manage It

Most people avoid conflict. Why?

There are many reasons, with fear at the heart of them all:

  • Fear of tension
  • Fear of hurting others
  • Fear of rejection
  • Fear of escalation of tough issues
  • Fear of a break in the relationship
  • Fear of an unexpected outcome, perhaps tougher to manage
  • Fear of being viewed as a troublemaker
  • Fear of retaliation
  • Fear of having to deal with difficult consequences

These fears are understandable. So we end up avoiding it like the plague.

“In my work with leaders and their teams, I’ve discovered that a universal talent is the ability to avoid conversations about attitude, behavior, or poor performance.”Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time

Conflict avoidance is widespread in organizations and teams. Signs of it in action:

  • People hold back and withhold opinions.
  • Meetings are boring or lame because people don’t really engage.
  • Team members don’t challenge each other.
  • Teams slide toward mediocrity since recurring issues never get addressed.
  • Leaders don’t invite differing views.
  • Some people are allowed to remain silent during meetings.
  • People say what they really feel only behind others’ backs.
  • Managers don’t get critical information.
  • People get cynical or burned out because the same problems keep reappearing.
  • People develop blind spots because they never get the feedback they need that’s tough and necessary.
  • People sense that the leader is abdicating responsibility by letting some things remain undiscussable.

Do you recognize these signs in your context? Here’s the problem: conflict is good for teams. In fact, it’s essential.

Author Patrick Lencioni writes about a conflict continuum, ranging from artificial harmony on one end to mean-spirited personal attacks on the other, with most organizations leaning toward the former. The ideal conflict point is in the middle.

Productive conflict is what we need. Respectful conflict. Conflict grounded in trust. Conflict centered around shared goals, not egos or agendas.

Conflict can’t be productive without high levels of trust. How can you feel comfortable airing out the real issues if you don’t trust the people in the room? Without that trust, and the productive conflict it allows, how can the team drive toward shared commitments, accountability, and results?

With high trust and a focus on shared goals, we can channel conflict toward the pursuit of truth (what’s really going on here?) and the quest for high performance, instead of feeble attempts by fragile egos to notch points.

Managing conflict is hard because most people run away from it or get triggered by it, allowing stimuli to hijack their response. It’s uncomfortable because it elicits a physiological response: chemicals, hormones, blood flow, and heart rate signal “Danger, danger!”

Part of the job of leaders is to create an environment where people feel comfortable engaging in conflict instead of fleeing it. Better yet, viewing it as an asset. As a potential advantage.

Leaders must have the self-awareness and emotional intelligence to recognize that people handle conflict differently, based on their personality, upbringing, culture, and more. We must learn to read each other and help each other navigate this difficult terrain.

Lencioni recommends that leaders “mine for conflict,” almost like it’s gold. Why? Some of the real breakthroughs can only be found on the other side of conflict.

How does this work in practice? A leader must go digging for buried disagreements or the things that aren’t being said. A leader must have the courage to bring the group’s attention to sensitive issues, where people feel uncomfortable, and push them to work through the issues despite the awkwardness and difficulty. A leader mustn’t let people avoid the issues or sensitive discussions. A leader must create a holding environment where it’s safe for some sparks to fly.

One leadership practice here is counterintuitive: catch people disagreeing during a meeting and praise them for modeling needed behavior. Remind them that the goal is not to focus on who wins, but on how conflict can help us understand core issues, root causes, and possible solutions.

By doing this, leaders can reframe conflict from a behavioral taboo to a necessary practice in the quest for excellence.

Another leadership practice here is “regulating the temperature.” Most teams generate friction and heat in their work together, especially in pressure-filled situations. Too often, leaders step in and artificially dial down the temperature as people start to feel uncomfortable.

That’s a mistake. The key is to keep the temperature hot enough—but not too hot—so that productive disagreement can continue as people work through the tension and start approaching solutions, instead of sweeping things under the rug.

Another leadership practice: depersonalize conflict. Reframe it away from who’s scoring points and toward a quest for understanding and a commitment to the shared vision.

A final leadership practice: driving to clear agreements and closure at the end of meetings. Too often, teams end meetings with ambiguity. People leave the meeting without a clear understanding of exactly what was decided and who’ll do what by when. Many meetings are poorly run, with tangents and poor time management. Attendees leave the meeting before a crisp accounting of the decisions and next steps is made. Leaders need to build in adequate time for this critical last step.

Important note: the leadership practices above don’t apply just to managers who have a formal position of authority. Distinguishing between leadership and authority, we note that anybody in a team can employ these leadership practices, regardless of their title. In our book, Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, we noted the advanced leadership practice of building a culture of stewardship in which leaders unleash the leadership, initiative, creativity, and commitment of everybody in the organization by giving them an automatic license to lead, as long as they operate by the shared values. Conflict management is a skill we all need.

The bottom line: while most people avoid it, we should embrace conflict as a necessary part of effective teamwork (and relationships generally)—and learn how to manage it well.

Productive conflict saves time.

It builds trust.

It leads to better results.

It’s a prerequisite for high-performing teams and trusting relationships.

Avoid it at your peril.

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Recommended Books on Managing Conflict Effectively:

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training and development venture. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). Check out Gregg’s manifesto on the most common Leadership Derailers, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.”

Leadership and Psychological Safety in Teams

The problems in far too many organizations today are legion:

  • Unproductive, boring meetings
  • Astonishing amounts of wasted time
  • Avoidance of sensitive issues
  • Lack of full engagement
  • Reluctance to provide candid, constructive feedback
  • Political games and hidden agendas

Sound familiar?

The effects are far-reaching, from low quality work to employee turnover. According to a Corporate Executive Board study, “Nearly half of all executive teams fail to receive negative news that is material to firm performance in a timely manner because employees are afraid of being tainted by the bad news,” and only “19% of executive teams are always promptly informed of bad news that is material to firm performance.”

“So many times, I’ve heard people say, ‘I knew our strategy wasn’t working, but no one was willing to tell our CEO. No one wanted to lose their job.” –Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations

Andrew Kakabadse found that an alarmingly high percentage of top management team members in countries around the world report that there are issues not discussed because they are too sensitive, as shown below.

Lack of Dialogue among Top Management Team about Sensitive Issues (% of top management team members reporting that there are issues that should be aired but are not discussed because they’re too sensitive)

Source: Andrew Kakabadse, The Success Formula: How Smart Leaders Deliver Outstanding Value (Bloomsbury, 2015).

A related problem is groupthink—when people feel pressure to conform to an artificial consensus instead of pressure-testing ideas thoroughly without fear or favor.

What’s to be done?

Psychological Safety

What’s needed—desperately in some cases—is what Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson and others call psychological safety: a shared sense that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking, such as floating a new idea for improving performance, raising a concern, or admitting a mistake.

Timothy R. Clark notes that psychological safety exists when people feel included and safe to learn, contribute, and challenge the status quo—“all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished.”

Easier said than done.

Our neurological wiring helps explain why psychological safety is fragile: our brains process a raised voice or a cutting comment as a threat, triggering certain parts of the brain with a fight-or-flight response and shutting down the parts responsible for advanced reasoning and creativity. We become unable to think clearly just when we need it most.

Edmondson found that “Low levels of psychological safety can create a culture of silence… in which speaking up is belittled and warnings go unheeded.”

She notes that speaking up is only the beginning. If a manager responds negatively when someone raises a concern, psychological safety is diminished or destroyed.

She also notes that “psychologically safe workplaces have a powerful advantage in competitive industries,” because they benefit from the feedback loops when customer service agents raise concerns with their managers or when line workers mention production problems to their supervisors, thereby identifying opportunities for improvement. In too many organizations, people are afraid to speak up, and so countless ideas are never shared.

The Importance of Trust—And Conflict

To create psychological safety we must build trust. Stephen M. R. Covey has noted that with high trust in organizations, speed increases and costs decrease.

Enter the work of Patrick Lencioni, who has noted the value of conflict in organizations (productive, not destructive, conflict). Most people view conflict as something to be avoided, because it can be awkward and uncomfortable.

Healthy teams use conflict productively, for example, to work through a difficult problem or understand the root cause of a breakdown. Lencioni observes that the best leaders “mine for conflict,” almost like it’s gold.

“Weak leaders want agreement. Strong leaders want the truth.” -Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations

Most teams run from conflict like it’s the plague. The first “dysfunction of a team” noted by Lencioni is an absence of trust. When people aren’t comfortable being vulnerable in the group (due to a lack of psychological safety), it’s impossible to build a foundation of trust because people are not open about their mistakes, weaknesses, and needs for help.

This tees up the second dysfunction: fear of conflict. Without trust, team members can’t engage in an unfiltered and vigorous debate, instead relying on veiled discussions and guarded comments that don’t get anywhere near the core issues.

“Trust is the foundation of real teamwork…. Great teams do not hold back with one another. They are unafraid to air their dirty laundry. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without fear of reprisal…. The most important action that a leader must take to encourage the building of trust on a team is to demonstrate vulnerability first.” -Patrick Lencioni

By showing vulnerability, leaders model the way and open a space where others feel comfortable doing the same.

The results of disciplined attention to these matters over time can be extraordinary. With high levels of psychological safety, fueled by vulnerability and trust, people rise to new heights of performance and engagement.

Psychological safety, while fragile and rare, is precious and powerful. The best leaders cultivate it carefully.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training and development venture. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards).

To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from his books, check out his Free Guide. Or check out his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship.”

Leading in a Crisis

Today, we are all being tested greatly, and so it is with our leaders. Individuals, organizations, and systems are all under strain, with some facing overload. Here are several keys to leading well in a crisis.

Radical Focus. When you are in a crisis, your immediate priority is survival. Crises require take fierce discipline in personal and organizational time management. Leaders should expect to use more “steel” (hard-edged leadership) than “velvet” (soft-edged) at the outset.

In a crisis, leaders must mercilessly cast aside all manner of ideas and projects—some with real merit—to ensure a tight focus on one or two key priorities needed for survival. Other priorities must wait. Even with this radical focus, leaders should look beyond the current storm, seeking creative ways to position the organization or group to flourish once the storm has passed.

Communicating Reality and Confidence. During a crisis, people need to know what is happening. Effective communications are essential, and it is imperative that the executive is factually accurate and forthright.

Leaders should block their calendar daily for time with their team and other key stakeholders. They must be visibly present inside and outside the organization—using all available technologies to enhance access.

Since people are stressed and worried as rumors fly, leaders must give people a sense of what to expect in the coming days and weeks, blending both realism about the current situation and confidence about the future if wise and bold action is taken.

It is essential to listen carefully and answer questions honestly. People need to be heard, and they deserve a realistic assessment of the situation and want solutions (or credible plans for how to get them). Credibility is a tremendous asset for the hard work ahead and must not be squandered.

Psychological Stability. In a crisis, many people are afraid, upset, or angry. The executive must establish not only financial and operational stability but also psychological stability. People need to be unfrozen, empowered to do what is required with confidence. Here is a tried and true process for establishing psychological stability:

  • Ventilation. First, identify all the problems. Go around the table, with each person briefly stating one issue—whether major or trivial and without editorial comment—or passing. Stop when everyone around the table has passed three times in a row. Be sure to document all the issues raised so people know they have been heard.
  • Priorities. Then sort the issues into topics (e.g., financial, operational, safety) and rank them as A, B, or C priorities.
  • Projects. Then form a crack team to work on the A priorities. The Bs are placed into a holding area, awaiting progress on the As. The Cs are deferred. The executive should require weekly (or daily) status reports to the senior management team on the A priorities, thereby establishing both transparency and accountability.
  • Values. The executive must then emphasize the need to operate by shared values.
  • Amnesty. Before moving forward, wise executives recognize that progress is not possible if people maintain vendettas about past grievances or play the “blame game.” To move forward, everybody must agree to provide amnesty for all prior mistakes. No grudges. The focus must be on the present and future, not the past.

Crisis Response Team. Facilitating the process above, the executive will get a sense for who would be reliable officers in the stormy seas ahead and who would be dead weight.

Selecting the crisis response team (and its associated roles and processes) is one of the most important things a leader can do. Skill set, character, emotional intelligence, resilience, courage, and buy-in with the shared values are good criteria to use in selecting the team. An effective organizational structure with clear roles and responsibilities, reporting lines, and communication channels are all required.

Operating Rhythm. A real risk in crises is that the initial momentum fizzles, causing the enterprise to spiral down again. To maintain forward momentum, leaders must establish a persistent operating rhythm with accountability follow-ups. Regular status reports and town hall meetings with employees (or constituents) are important.

The effort requires persistence. The group must hack away at the root causes of the problems, not symptoms. Together, they make slow and steady progress over time, reporting results and encouraging each other. Such feedback loops help foster alignment.

“A river cuts through rock, not because of its power, but because of its persistence.” James Watkins, author

Sanctuary. In crises, leaders receive a barrage of body blows. To survive such an onslaught and to remain at their best, leaders need a daily practice of sanctuary to refresh mind, body, and spirit. Leaders must not lose themselves in their role, taking the inevitable attacks and setbacks personally.

“In moments of darkness you need to remember why you’re here and why you’re fighting that fight.” –Jacqueline Ros, co-founder and CEO of Revolar

Triple Crown Leadership Practices. Finally, the five “triple crown leadership” practices that are key to building excellent, ethical, and enduring organizations are all applicable to crises:

  1. Head and Heart. Choose people not only with the “head” elements of skills sets but also with the “heart” elements of character, emotional intelligence, and cultural fit.
  2. The Colors. Commit to uphold the shared purpose, values, and vision.
  3. Steel and Velvet. Flex between the hard and soft edges of leadership. Leaders should invoke steel to hold people accountable for the values and priorities but be careful not to squelch the initiative of potential leaders in the ranks.
  4. Stewards. Unleash multiple leaders to serve as stewards of the culture. Most crises require a great team of leaders, not a lone visionary.
  5. Alignment. Achieve peak performance through disciplined, collaborative alignment, with clear action plans, accountability mechanisms, and feedback loops.

Additional Tips from the Field:

  • Be wary of “the greatest leadership sin of all–hubris.” –James Kouzes and Barry Posner, A Leader’s Legacy
  • “You can’t surrender to the options before you. There’s always another way.” –Cory Booker, civic entrepreneur, U.S. senator
  • “People always ask me, ‘What’s the secret to being a successful CEO?’ Sadly, there is no secret, but if there is one skill that stands out, it’s the ability to focus and make the best move when there are no good moves. It’s the moments where you feel most like hiding or dying that you can make the biggest difference as a CEO.” –Ben Horowitz, entrepreneur, inventor, investor
  • “The signature of the truly great versus the merely successful is not the absence of difficulty, but the ability to come back from setbacks, even cataclysmic catastrophes, stronger than before.” –Jim CollinsHow the Mighty Fall

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.

Avoiding Breakdowns

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
-Ernest Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms

In leadership circles, too often the focus is on success principles for effective leading. That is all well and good, but often it can be more helpful to tackle things from the other perspective: what causes leadership to break down (and what can we do to avoid breakdowns)?

First, there is a connection between personal breakdowns among leaders and the breakdowns of their organizations. Here we reflect on both.

Personal Breakdowns
“Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.”
-Ovid, Roman poet

Even the best leaders are at risk of breakdowns or setbacks in their life and work. Many leaders have frenetic schedules of meetings and travel, or face constant stress and pressure. As the effects accumulate over time, exhaustion sets in. Though many just “suck it up” and ignore the risks, those who want to thrive and endure recognize the potential for danger, including losing their ethical moorings, making rash decisions, and damaging important relationships.

Leaders need regular exercise and movement, nutritious food, good sleep, and ways to find sanctuary (e.g., mindfulness practices, nature walks). “Triple crown leadership” (our model for excellent, ethical, and enduring/sustainable leadership) begins with leading ourselves.

Failure to do so leads to problems with all three areas: excellent (in terms of performance problems), ethical (with lapses in judgment and impulsive compromises), and enduring (with an unsustainable pace that wreaks havoc on our health, judgment, and relationships, and that can damage our organizational culture). Leaders seeking to avoid organizational breakdowns should start by leading themselves.

“The cornerstone of effective leadership is self-mastery.”
Patricia Aburdene, best-selling author and social forecaster

Organizational Breakdowns
In today’s volatile environment, organizational breakdowns are common. Sometimes it is a quiet affair with an orderly dissolution of assets. Other times, it is a seismic crash with painful ripple effects. Sometimes an organization rises to the pinnacle and then slowly fades back in the field.

Importantly, most organizations do not break down before emitting warning signs. Normally, the financial signals, such as revenue declines and shrinking margins, are lagging indicators. Leading indicators are more important because leaders can address them before the financials go south. What are some early warning signals of potential breakdowns?

Early Warning Signals of Organizational Breakdowns

  • Focusing too much on strategy shifts and tweaking processes instead of accountability for results
  • Complacency
  • Ethical compromises
  • Short-termism
  • Boards out to lunch about performance, culture, ethics, and sustainability
  • Chaos or constantly changing priorities

Some of the common causes of these breakdowns include: excessive deference to the top managers, failing to tap into the potential of people, leaders assuming they must make all the decisions and have all the answers, poor communication and secrecy, organizational silos, and lack of discipline and follow-through. All are failures of leadership.

As you encounter the early warning signs, you will need courage to take decisive and bold action to get the enterprise back on track. Often, this requires a rare blend of what we call “steel” (flexing to the hard edge of leadership, even if that is not a natural mode for you as a person) and smart use of people practices, such as unleashing the latent leadership potential of people throughout the organization, via what we call a culture of “stewards.”

In the end, we can avoid the breakdowns when we tap into the brilliant potential and goodwill of our team, aligning their work toward the organization’s purpose and vision, while guided by its shared values. Such resilience is the hallmark of triple crown organizations, and it can turn these challenges into amazing opportunities for transformation.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards) and LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.