Seek Problems, Not Solutions: Leading Conflict Principle 8

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

Most leaders are trained to say that they seek new challenges, growth, and continuous improvement. We are all habituated to say that we see conflict as an opportunity; a natural part of life that comes with collaboration.

However, in practice most leaders avoid conflict and seek stasis.

After all, challenge, growth, and truly continuous development are inherently destabilizing. This is true when learning new technical, physical, or intellectual skills. It’s triply true when learning new relational skills.

Expertise in knowing when and how to upend the interpersonal apple cart has very little to do with head-knowledge. It has much more to do with practice, repetition, and discipline in doing what feels scary and unnatural.

You need to practice these habits and skills enough times to develop the instinct to do the opposite of what most people around you are likely to do. This is what’s required in order to run toward an interpersonal fire as others are running away from it.

The first three principles of Leading Conflict help you overcome the natural tendency to flee from uncertainty and disruption:

Round 1

Move Toward Fear: Principle 1

There’s No Nice Way to Poke Someone in the Eye: Principle 2

Embrace the Suck: Principle 3

The next three principles assume you are moving past the initial resistance to engagement and are ready to start taking more personal risks and look in the mirror. This round asks leaders to move beyond simply engaging the behavior of others and focus on our own need to change.

Round 2

Fake It Until You Make It: Principle 4

Be Radically Transparent: Principle 5

Grow in Public: Principle 6

The final three principles (Round 3) cover the core skills needed to be forward-thinking and strategic; to do all of the above purposefully, in the best interests of others, and in support of an explicit vision for yourself and your organization. These principles require that you actively role-model what you are asking others to do. For instance:

As I said in principle 7, Show Off With Humility, we cannot share what we do not have, and cannot teach what we do not practice.

Actually, it is possible to teach what we do not practice, just not very well or credibly.

Growth in relational expertise requires an admission that we don’t know everything; that we are all still a work in progress. If we are asking staff to “go there”, we need to go there first and show them how it’s done. That requires humility.

I’ll hire a leader who actively practices humility over a genius-savant every single time.

Without humility, expertise in leading conflict comes off as arrogance and manipulation. With humility, others will trust that even though you are asking them to do something scary, it’s probably good for them.

Once you have a working knowledge and regular practice of the principles above, it’s time to work on strategy.

Leading conflict means that you no longer live in fear of disruption. You stop being reactive; waiting for things to happen and hoping that nothing “goes wrong” today.

Start engaging challenges proactively as a primary function of your leadership. This requires that leaders seek problems, not solutions.

As I said at the outset, regardless of what they say, most leaders seek stasis, harmony, and peace. Instead, seek the broken places, sharp edges, and underdeveloped areas of your organizational relationships and culture. Engage them. Don’t solve them.

Aside from our own fears and insecurities, most workplace problems are really just creative challenges. Multiple people with good intentions are working hard to solve some technical, creative, or interpersonal challenge. That challenge might be difficult, but the interpersonal stakes are not that high. Often, the group just needs some confident leadership and a steady hand that isn’t freaked out by the tension and disruption.