Conflict, a swear word in so many people’s vocabulary. Being conflicting has got a bad rap.
This month, I have been working with a business that has to make important changes urgently to secure their survival and step into thriving. For weeks the senior leadership team has circled the difficult decisions that have to be made that, by their nature, involve conflict. Difficult, challenging and definitive conversations have been avoided. The business has gone nowhere until… one of the leaders of the business threw down the gauntlet and gave an ultimatum. The action was conflict in its purest form. She recognises that the conflict was necessary to get a decision and start the process of change.
Why do we avoid conflict?
Most of us avoid conflict as it forces uncontrollable change. We do not know what the outcome of the change will be. We understand at a deep level that, after conflict, we cannot return to how it was before. This truth about conflict is its curse and its blessing.
How do we approach conflict?
Conflict can be approached in two ways: Thoughtful or Thoughtless.
Conflict that is thoughtless is impulsive and destructive. It leads to harsh consequences that are more hurtful and destructive than necessary. Because the hurt caused by these conflicts is so intense, the conflict is experienced as trauma. People respond to trauma unconsciously. Conflict trauma is avoided without being aware that we are avoiding it. Because of the relationship between conflict and trauma, people treat all conflict as though it is trauma. This is not necessarily the truth.
Thoughtful conflict is just as impactful but more sophisticated. It achieves the change in a way that allows for a masterpiece to be crafted. The conflict is still painful, but it is more strategic and specific. It is not personal, but problem and solution focused. Thoughtful conflict leads impactful change. There is still unpredictability in the change but because the conflict has been thought through, it is better led and managed.
Leaders’ responsibility to have thoughtful conflict
As leaders and managers, awareness of thoughtless vs. thoughtful conflict must be top of mind. When we use a sledgehammer to chisel a sculpture, the results are devastating. It is a leader’s responsibility to manage that they engage in thoughtful conflict to avoid unnecessary damage. This way we begin to build a conscious and healthy relationship with conflict that allows for the desired change.
Building a relationship with healthy conflict
When I speak to experienced leaders, most intuitively know they need to be able to engage in thoughtful conflict. Most still avoid conflict. The level of discomfort felt about having a conflict conversation keeps many leaders, young and mature, paralysed. So, if mature leaders are avoiding having the difficult conversations or making the difficult decisions, how can we support our young leaders to choose to step into thoughtful conflict?
The starting point is to recognise that small, well-considered and contained conflicts, early on in a situation:
Thoughtful conflict is a critical and necessary part of successful leadership.
As leaders that want our businesses to be successful, we have to role model thoughtful conflict. We need to step into the discomfort and have proactive thoughtful conflict conversations. We need to discuss the gifts that healthy conflict gives.
As senior leaders, a key development area must be to support your managers to cope with the change that comes with conflict. Build their self-confidence to have constructive conflicts so they can support their staff and your business to perform.