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How great leaders manage conflict

By Randy Hall

Much of leadership is about making choices. Sometimes when there are choices to be made, we start to make decisions based on the amount of discomfort involved with the solution. It’s a natural thing to do. If we think this is the right way to solve a problem, help a person on our team improve, reorganize the business, become healthier as a team, or whatever we might be working toward, but the right way is also exceptionally difficult; Then sometimes, we wait, justify inaction, or decide on another course of action that’s less challenging.

Often, that challenge comes in the form of conflict with others. It could be peers, our own team, our boss, or anyone who we might think has a reaction that could add to the degree of difficulty.

There’s no question that leadership is difficult stuff. But we often make it much harder than it has to be. Instead of working around the conflict, one of the things we can do as leaders is simply learn to reduce both the anticipation of conflict and the actual occurrence of it.

Let’s also separate the use of tools to manage or remove conflict with the charging in and escalating it. I have worked with a lot of leaders that declare themselves “willing to have the tough conversations.” What that sometimes means is that they make conversations even tougher along the way. What some of the best leaders I have worked with strive for, is being willing to work through a tough situation with someone but helping both people get to a good next set of steps. Not denying the challenge in the situation is different than being willing to go have a fight or not to do our best leadership work. Our job is to help people work through challenges, not just be willing to present them.

Most of the time, it’s not even real conflict that gets in our way, it’s just the perception that there might be some. It’s entirely possible for us to even get angry with others, purely based on the set of thoughts we have about how they might respond, or how we expect them to deal with the situation. We tend to assume how others will react and then emotionally react to our own assumptions. We also tend to judge them based on all the reactions we just assigned to them without ever having a conversation with them. It’s another human reaction, but leaders are human too.

Ever want to tell someone but then decide in your mind how they will probably react and then get angry at them for how they never understand? It happens. And it cripples our ability to lead in the face of possible conflict

As leaders, we have to build tools for ourselves that help us lead others at our best. One of those tools is the ability to work through conflict effectively. And again, I don’t mean charge in and tackle it as much as I mean minimize it so we can make good choices about the future.

One of the tools that can help is assuming positive intent. That means that we remove that roadblock of knowing, with what we believe to be incredible certainty, that people will attack or respond emotionally or even be hurt by the conversation or the situation. We can use thoughts like “I bet if I can present this well and be open to a good discussion about it, they will do their best to process it effectively.” We can’t predict what others will do, even though we believe we can, so setting ourselves up for success like this is important. At least it gives us a shot at moving forward. When we assume the worst will happen, we have very little chance of that. It’s also true that how we have conversations has more to do with the reactions others have than the situation itself. People often understand when we have difficult decisions to make or feedback to share. What they also expect is that we have those conversations well, like a leader.

The other critical tool is planning our conversation well, especially the beginning of it. If it’s tough feedback, we need to start with their own assessment of how they are performing or how they executed a task. Often, they will be ahead of the game and are already thinking about what they want to do differently to improve. We might start with, “tell me about how this went for you” and “what you would like to change next time,” instead of “Here is what I need you to do differently next time.”

If we are having a personal conflict with someone, we can start with something like, “hey I would like to talk with you about something and it might be a challenge for me, but I think it is important, are you okay if we try to work through it?” That simple phrase, or one like it, can be memorized and used wherever we need it. That way we don’t have to be creative about one in an emotional moment.

If we are communicating a tough decision, it’s important to lay out the decision-making process as well as the results of it. People deserve to know that we didn’t do difficult things lightly if other people’s lives are affected. Use a framework such as, “here are the factors that had to be considered”, “here are the parts of this that are personally tough for me,” and “here is where we are headed and how we will make the future better.” If we do challenging things well, people respect that. If we do them callously or thoughtlessly, or they are perceived that way, then we have diminished our ability to lead in the future even though we were willing to make the tough call.

Use these tools and practice them so that you can call on them easily when challenges arise. The way we do challenging, conflict-filled things is even more important than our willingness to do them. Leadership is about causing improvement because we prepared and executed a process that consistently does that. If we leave situations worse after we make a tough decision or face a challenging conversation, well we might have had courage, but we didn’t lead. 

What do you think? Let us know in the comments section below. 

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