Don’t Manage Conflict. Lead it.

Updated: Feb 18, 2019


Photo by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash

Managing is about overseeing processes, plans, and systems. It’s about keeping things, often created by others, running.


Leading is about engaging and becoming immersed in the nuanced and complicated lives of real people. Leading is envisioning, building, and sometimes breaking things on purpose. Leadership helps a team manifest ideas and aspirations.

Management and leadership skills are both essential for a healthy organization, but they are not the same thing. In some organizations, the assignment of these tasks is rigid and highly concentrated into specific job roles.


A nuclear power plant has a very high percentage of people whose job it is to manage a finely tuned system of fixed processes and procedures. In other settings these roles are, shall we say, more fluid


There are a limited number of people in any organization who are explicitly assigned managerial tasks. But the great thing about leadership is – anyone can lead.


Some roles have strong leadership expectations baked into them. However, the most effective organizations expect some amount of leadership from every role – from the part-time intern to the CEO.


The roots of conflict lie in the small things that happen in relationships and communication – the gaps, nooks, and crannies of workplace behavior. Accordingly, high quality responses to conflict do not lend themselves well to centralized and hierarchical management.

When building a high performing team, it is crucial that conflict leadership skills be widely distributed across the culture regardless of role and position in the official hierarchy.


If you want to maximize the benefits of conflict, you need to help those directly involved learn to lead conflict themselves – instead of giving specialists the job of managing it from afar.

It’s the nature of the management role to seek stasis, stability, and sustainability. Managerial tasks are oriented around efficiency and risk avoidance. Usually, this is precisely what is needed to oversee a supply chain, monitor a large investment, or execute a five-year strategic plan. Those tasks are usually explicitly assigned to people who excel at them.


The nature of the leadership role is to create uncertainty, challenge existing practice, and look beyond what is, toward what is possible. Those skills, can and should be practiced by anyone.


You can lead conflict regardless of your title.

The skills discussed in this blog are not only for people who have “conflict” something-or-other in their job description. These skills are meant for you and the challenges you face in workplace relationships every day. In your role, lead conflict by:


  • Seeing conflict as an opportunity, not a disruption

  • Engaging conflict, not suppressing it

  • Maximizing the benefits of conflict, not minimizing the risks

  • Expanding participation, not isolating those involved


Do this, and conflict becomes more than an opportunity for your team to grow. It becomes an opportunity to show that you can lead.


Check out the Leading Conflict store for practical and hard-hitting resources that will help you put these ideas into action.


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