After years of working as a mediator, consultant, and organizational leader, I now understand that there are at least six crucial realizations for leaders to successfully navigate organizational conflict.
I will describe seven critical things to remember, and then I’ll summarize with the most important thing you can do to lead through conflict.
Seven Things You Must Know
1. By the time that you hear something is amiss, it’s probably already bad.
People want to be able to deal with things on their own and usually approach leadership when they feel stuck. Another common way that you will hear about tension is when it bubbles out in a public manner, like at a meeting. Again, remember it wouldn’t be bubbling out unless it were already bad. People usually don’t make their conflicts public until they are starting to feel fed up. The realization that it’s probably already bad should prompt you to action.
2. Ignoring the tension is doing something!
Your inaction will be felt and interpreted. For some it will be a message that their behaviour is okay. For others it will be a message that you don’t care. And some will interpret your silence as a lack of competence. Don’t let this be you, even if conflict scares you. Silence is one of the worst mistakes leaders make. It allows conflict to fester and grow. It kills morale.
3. You must act. How you act matters.
Your actions should carry the message that you care, that you want to see positive resolution to tension or disagreement, and that you trust your people to act with good intentions.
4. Don’t fix the problem for others.
While you will nearly always play a role in the resolution of a conflict, the best solutions come from within the people involved in a conflict. Help draw the solutions out.
5. Your role is to uphold good behaviour.
To call people to their best selves, to help people live in congruence with their values and your organization’s values, and to support them in finding solutions.
6. You must model what you want.
Demonstrate how to listen. Always take responsibility for the ways you may have contributed to the situation through your action or inaction. Always apologize for the part that is yours.
7. The Most Important Thing
I believe that the most important thing any leader can do to help themselves and others through conflict is to listen with curiosity.
In conflict, people begin to perceive the actions of other people through negative lenses. This leads to negative judgments about the character of other people. Previously innocuous behaviour, like the lack of a greeting in the morning, may now get interpreted as someone being stand-offish or uncaring. Instead of someone describing behaviour in a neutral way, like “John passed me in the hallway without saying good morning,” they now say something like “John is so stand-offish.”
Our job as leaders is both to hear the tension filled stories of others and acknowledge the tension or pain they may be experiencing, and then to move them towards curiosity.
We cannot move someone towards curiosity (or openness) without first listening. Once we have listened, we can then begin helping people to consider other alternatives to explain the offending behaviour (aside from a character problem).
When people move towards curiosity, they move towards more openness to dialogue. When they move towards more openness and dialogue, they can begin to seriously consider how the conflict may be resolved.
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