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Navigating Conflict: The Crucial Role of a Leader

Does anyone like dealing with conflict? What if you’re a leader, does the expectation change? Are you supposed to be comfortable with conflict?

If I’m brutally honest, I have never been comfortable with conflict. Over the last couple of years, I have realized that conflict resolution is an important skill to master to be an effective leader. I have started to use my experience during conflict as signals and guideposts of what matters to me.

I was in a 1:1 conversation with Joe who is trying to navigate conflict in his environment. As we dove into the conversation, I realized Joe was right where I was a few years ago. He was hoping the conflict would go away, he was avoiding it, compensating for it and optimistic that it would get better with time. What he was not doing, was facing it!

I asked Joe a few questions which challenged his thinking. He is still reflecting on how to incorporate some of what we discussed into his day-to-day habits, but he’s becoming aware and acknowledges that something needs to shift in him.

  • What do you think about the role of a leader in conflict?

  • What happens when you, as a leader, deal with conflict rather than avoid it?

  • What can give you the courage to call it as it is?

These questions and more made for an intense and exciting conversation. Let’s dive in …

Conflict Navigation

What did the Conflict feel like?

I started with asking for permission to help unpack what Joe was experiencing. I wanted to understand the context and most importantly how Joe felt.

Here are some of the questions we dove into:

  • What was the conflict? How did it feel?

  • What did Joe feel comfortable doing and why?

  • What were Joe’s underlying beliefs about his ability to deal with conflict?

  • What had worked or not worked for him before?

  • What support was he getting from leadership?

What I learned in our conversation, was that Joe felt powerless. The conflict was with a Product leader who was not meeting expectations. This resulted in his team not being setup for success. Joe had provided feedback in the past and there seemed to be no sign of improvement. He had also escalated this matter to his leader and there was no corrective action being taken. No wonder Joe felt powerless. He had lost his sense of agency and was working around the conflict, to best serve the team.

What else could Joe do?

1. Understanding your role in Conflict

The first thing Joe needed to do was understand his role in a conflict situation, as a leader. If he did not face the conflict head on, who would?

  • How did the conflict impact him? What did that tell him about his values?

  • What was the right way to address the conflict? Was he able to do that? Why not?

Joe cared about building clarity for his teams and setting them up for success. He was dependent on his Product leader to do this, but when it did not happen — he started stepping in and doing the work for him. At first, this seemed honorable and the right thing to do. But the underlying message to the Product leader, was even though the quality of the work was not up to par, nothing needed to change.

What was Joe’s responsibility in how he was being treated?

You are responsible to teach people how to treat you. Your standards. Your responsibility.

2. Pushing the system for Change

I have noticed that when there is conflict, you have two choices — surrender and do nothing, or lean in and push for the right behavior that aligns with the outcome you want. If this is the first time you are leaning in and pushing the system around you, expect it to push back. It will feel uncomfortable. Now it’s up to you to stand in your values, your authenticity, pay attention to your needs and stand up for what is right. After all, isn’t that how change happens in organizations? It takes one person to stand up for a change, before everyone around realizes what is important to them.

Joe was clear about the behaviors he wanted to see and the outcomes it would lead to. He knew he needed to have the courage to stand up and expect a higher standard of excellence. He knew if he did that, he would come across as a stronger leader and the system around him would benefit from higher standards. Yet, he did not feel a sense of agency to push for it.

Pushing a system through change is no easy task. If doing it, would improve our system at all levels, then what stops us?

3. Getting clear on the Why

As a leader, one of Joe’s core responsibilities was building an environment where his teams could thrive. This meant dealing with conflicts in his environment, so it would not get in his team’s way.

  • Did he fully understand that dealing with conflict was his responsibility?

  • Did he understand the impact of what he was doing and not doing?

This is where we unpacked something that helped Joe think differently about his why. He cared about teams with a healthy culture that would deliver products they were proud of. His empathetic leadership style allowed for teams to fail fast and learn. He did not realize the impact of tolerating lower standards and how it affected the team’s culture.

If Joe did not stand up for his teams, who would?

Behavior drives culture. Culture drives results. You might expect performance, but in the end, you will get what you’re willing to tolerate.

Courage over Comfort

Sitting with Joe and understanding his experience, his beliefs and what held him back made me realize that most people struggle with conflict. Brene Brown’s quote on “Courage over Comfort” came to mind.

Dealing with conflict is uncomfortable, but when we have the courage to lean in and face it, understand the role we must play and can see the impact of our actions — we will hopefully choose Courage over Comfort.

How might we use conflict to understand what we value and our role in resolving it, to get to better outcomes?

In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity.

~ Albert Einstein



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