Updated: Aug 23, 2022
This is the second in a series of blogs in which we will look at some of the common issues faced by modern leaders and how they can be addressed. Today, we will consider how to approach conflict.
What is Conflict?
What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘conflict’? For many, it is a threatening, emotive word that describes situations they would much rather avoid. A lot of leaders struggle to deal with it when it does arise and either handle it poorly or hope it will simply go away (it almost certainly will not - unless someone leaves!).
As a leader, you cannot avoid all conflict – and nor should you try! Here is why:
There are 2 types of conflict, namely unhealthy and healthy.
Unhealthy conflict is personal, and it is ruinous for boards and teams. This could occur where, for example, negative judgments are made, either without evidence or because the person has different motivations (see below), about another’s character and/or intentions. This leads to behaviours which undermine trust and effective working relationships such that the team will underperform.
People go into conflict when there is a perceived threat to things that are important to them (these are their ‘conflict triggers’). Since different things are important to different people, conflict triggers on a team will also be different. The leader who understands this, and knows what each person values, can both understand what is likely to push somebody into conflict and take steps to either avoid or ameliorate the effects if avoidance is not possible.
This is where psychometric tools such as SDI2.0 can be a real help: they reveal individuals’ motivations and conflict triggers (amongst other things). A sample SDI2.0 report is attached at the bottom of the page so you can see the quality of information the assessment yields.
I particularly like SDI because it is simple, with only 3 coloured categories of primary motivation to remember, and very easy to apply quickly in live situations.
SDI states that everyone is a blend of 3 primary motivations, though one may dominate. Those whose motivations are equally split are called ‘hubs’.
The 3 primary motivations are:
People (Blue) – wanting to help others
Performance (Red) – wanting to achieve results
Process (Green) – wanting to establish order
Understanding these differences means that the leader and other team members can prevent conflict by taking effective steps to cater for each others’ motivational values as follows:
Blues (People Focused) –
Be sincere, genuine and authentic
Allow time to discuss the feelings/emotional aspects of situations
Affirm the relationship
Do not patronise or diminish the importance of their emotions
Emphasise the benefits to people of the proposed course of action or, if the outcome would be negative, be open, honest and compassionate about it
Reds (Performance focused) –
Deliver important and appropriate information directly
Show an understanding of the issue’s importance and convey a sense of due urgency
Engage in discussion with passion and energy
Get to the point quickly
Deliver ideas with confidence and clarity
Greens (Process Focused) –
Avoid broad, unsubstantiated or emotional arguments
Do not jump to conclusions or make quick assumptions
Use logic and evidence to support your ideas
Allow time for reflection and consideration, and for sufficient details to be provided
Avoid small talk or humour during intense discussions
Hubs (Flexibility Focused) –
Remain open to ideas and be flexible in your approach to solutions
Note different perspectives and focus on the attributes of solutions
Maintain a sense of humour
Use a collaborative style to get maximum contributions
Explore diverse possibilities with an open mind
As the above shows, a ‘one size fits all' approach does not work for leading through conflict.
The ability to flex one’s style on the continuum from delegating (or even laissez-faire) to directive is one of the 5 traits of high-performance leaders highlighted in my short LI article which can be found here (the others being communicating a vision, having awareness, being decisive and showing courage): (2) What the Best Leaders do Differently | LinkedIn
Healthy conflict, by contrast, is a manifestation of disagreements about issues and opportunities and should be actively promoted. A board or team that fails to surface such differences will miss out on identifying different ideas, risks and assumptions. Some issues may not be addressed at all because they are too sensitive, whilst others may find their way back onto the agenda with boring and frustrating predictability. Teams which willingly engage in healthy conflict get greater buy-in, achieve better results and have more fun doing so!
It is this type of conflict leaders should actively promote!
They can do this by implementing these ideas:
Boosting Healthy Conflict
Build trust! If your team is not willing to be genuinely open with each other, e.g., being able to say things like ‘I need help with this’, ‘your idea is better than mine’, ‘I was wrong about that’, etc. without fear of repercussions (unless laziness or gross incompetence is evident), your capacity for healthy conflict will be severely limited.
Do not initially share your own preferred solution to the issue. Present the problem/opportunity, define what must be agreed upon, give the constraints, and let the team openly discuss and challenge each other.
Periodically summarise the key points/options raised and ask if anyone has other ideas or concerns.
Draw out the quieter members by (appropriately) asking them questions that will surface their opinions.
Mine for conflict! Go looking for it! If there has not been sufficiently robust conflict on important issues, keep going until there is (during executive away-days, Steve Jobs would send his executives back to the drawing board and readdress the issue again if their debates were not deep enough).
Ask everyone directly if they have anything else to add.
Appoint a ‘devil’s advocate’ to intentionally take opposite views and robustly challenge dominant thinking.
Openly support and encourage those who challenge a prevailing opinion. Even if they are wrong, applauding their willingness to do so will encourage both them and others to do so again in the future.
Reassure the team that this is what you want to see. Model it yourself and make it part of the onboarding interviews you conduct.
Keep the debate focused on the issues, not the characters involved.
Does Healthy Conflict Really Matter?
In addition to the points already noted above, consider this case study:
A German utility company, RWE, spent $10Bn over 5 years constructing conventional power generating facilities. At the time, the industry was already switching to renewable energy sources and there were strong political pressures reinforcing the switch.
RWE’s project failed and most of the $10Bn had to be written off.
During the subsequent enquiry, it was discovered that several biases had combined to blind executives to the reality of the risk. One such bias was ‘hierarchical bias’ which manifests as a lack of willingness to challenge those in higher authority. On questioning, a number of managers admitted to knowing the project would fail but they did not feel empowered to challenge their bosses!
RWE learnt its lesson and now takes steps to prevent a recurrence by actively encouraging challenges to key decisions (healthy conflict). It was an expensive way to learn this lesson!
If you as a leader do not encourage people to engage and appropriately challenge, you will soon be surrounded by people with nothing to say! The chances of business success are then constrained by the limits of your knowledge. You are also more likely to experience staff retention problems as key people seek more fulfilling roles elsewhere.
Human nature means that there will always be likes and dislikes in working relationships.
Leaders must be clear about the responsibility they have for addressing damaging, unhealthy conflict whilst being intentional about intelligently promoting healthy disagreement over issues and opportunities.
A flexible leadership style is essential since it allows the leader to better engage with individuals based on what is important to them.
Tools such as SDI2.0 can provide the information necessary for leaders to better know their staff and understand how to cultivate better relationships across the team by building trust and informing conflict management.
Aspire MCL has a long and successful track record of helping leaders overcome barriers and realise their full potential. Our principal consultant, Ian Kirkby, is a certified SDI2.0 facilitator and NLP coach with significant experience in senior leadership in diverse sectors and cultures. He engages with clients to tailor coaching, mentoring, psychometric assessments and training programmes to ensure the focus is on practical results which service desired outcomes. He has a professional and friendly approach and finds it rewarding to see leaders and their teams not only improve their performance but enjoy doing so!
Testimonials can be seen here: https://www.aspiremcl.co.uk/testimonials
Take the first step to unleashing YOUR leadership potential: get in touch today by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org or calling on 020 3904 7501.
As noted above, this is the second blog in a series addressing leadership issues. If there is a topic you would like Aspire to cover in subsequent releases, please comment or email email@example.com. We will not spam you!
Aspire MCL: Leadership problems - sorted!