Updated: Jul 29
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:
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.
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.
The tougher situations are toxic conflicts that center around particular personalities who are behaving badly and damaging workplace culture and relationships. These types of conflicts are far fewer in number, but they consume an inordinate amount of time and attention from leaders.
The primary mistake leaders make is this… When leaders are oriented toward seeking stasis, they will fail to adequately lead creative conflict and obsess over toxic conflict. When this is the norm, workplace culture suffers immeasurably. Those who behave the worst get all of the attention. Those working hard to do the real creative work of culture-building are neglected.
Toxic conflict feels scary and urgent. In contrast, leading creative conflict feels optional because it carries less immediate threats. After all, creative conflict does tend to work itself out – even with lackluster leadership. Toxic conflict feels like it can boil over at any minute.
This is where leaders must discipline themselves to do the unnatural thing and reverse this dynamic.
Spend the vast majority of your time engaging and leading creative conflict. This will proactively generate a culture that produces the new leaders you need and reduces future toxic conflicts through improved relationships and behavior norming.
Conversely, be more sparing but far more direct in your response to toxic conflict. It is likely that 90% or more of your toxic conflicts are generated by just a handful of personalities – usually less than 10% of staff.
You know who they are and what they do. Leading conflict means you should have a plan for engaging each of those personalities on your (and the organization’s) terms, not theirs. Don’t wait for them to do the same thing again and again. Act. Don’t react.
Be strong, bold, and determined in responding to toxic behavior. There should only be two options for these folks: an explicit plan for progressive behavior change or a plan to leave.
This greatly simplifies the task for leaders and ensures that responding to toxic personalities does not dominate your time or organizational culture as a whole.
With a plan for engagement and clear goals for behavior change, these personalities should require no more than 10% of your time. If you are spending more than 10% of your time on toxic personalities, then these people are not the real problem.
In the next article, I’ll share some real-life stories that illustrate how to put the above into action on the ground.
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