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Making Peace with Conflict: What Leaders Need to Know

tug of war

I was definitely surprised by the feedback from my last blog. While I discussed coping with a boss who avoids conflict, I was bombarded with messages from people who shared this reaction: “Help! I am that boss. What should I do?”

If you tend to avoid conflict, you’re clearly not alone. To more closely analyze your response to conflict situations, you might consider an assessment called the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. This brilliant evaluation tool measures individuals on various levels of assertiveness and cooperation.

To give you a quick snapshot of this model, imagine a manager tasked with splitting a chocolate cake among the team members. The Thomas-Kilmann tool shows that leaders generally respond in five different ways:

Competing (highly assertive and uncooperative):

“I’ll take it all.”

Accommodating (unassertive and highly cooperative):

“You take it all.”

Compromising (moderately assertive and cooperative):

“Everyone gets an equal slice.”

Collaborative (highly assertive and cooperative):

“Everyone gets cake, but the slice size may vary.”

Avoiding (unassertive and uncooperative):

“Skip it; nobody needs cake.”

As you’ll see, there are times when each one of these styles is appropriate. If you’re a chronic conflict-avoider, the secret is making a shift to incorporate the other styles when needed without overusing any one of them.

Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of each approach.

The Competing leader is great in an emergency or when the team needs specific directives. However, staying in this mode is exhausting and makes every decision feel like a fight. The truth is, you don’t need to comment or weigh in on every issue. Let others express their opinions and share their ideas. If you find yourself playing this role for too long, experiment with more collaboration and cooperation.

The Accommodating leader allows others to shine, but can soon become the managerial doormat. Increase your assertiveness. If a decision is important to you or your department, speak up. Plan what you want to say in advance to boost your confidence. Focus on finding more collaborative solutions that help you achieve your own goals while accommodating others.

The Compromising leader projects a welcome image of fairness, but that can undermine your team performance when you’re facing problems that are multi-layered and emotionally charged. Dig a little deeper on the facts to determine whether a different, slightly-less-equitable solution could generate better results overall.

The Collaborative leader encourages input from everyone, and this approach is essential when issues are particularly complex or controversial. On the other hand, involving too many people can throw a project into “analysis paralysis.” If you need to collaborate with multiple departments, stay focused on joint visions and objectives. Get the feedback you need, but keep moving forward.

Finally, the Avoiding leader simply retreats. This strategy can actually be helpful when it’s no longer productive to continue a heated discussion and everyone needs a chance to cool down. Plus, it’s always admirable to avoid drama and gossip. But when leaders get stuck in an avoidance rut, they quickly become ineffective.

Even if avoidance isn’t your dominant style of handling conflict, you’ve probably adopted it on occasion. Here are 3 suggestions for those who slide into the role of the Avoiding leader a bit too often:

  1. Analyze why you might feel threatened by the potential for conflict. Are you just avoiding stress? Do you feel uncomfortable with negotiations or disagreements? Have you experienced negative outcomes in previous conflict situations? For many people, the attitude becomes, “I can’t lose a battle if I don’t fight it.” If you can understand the reasons behind your behavior, you will be better prepared to manage that response.

  2. Remind yourself that not all conflict is bad. Innovative concepts and successful strategies often emerge when teams work through their conflict effectively, blending the best ideas together. Once you accept the fact that some level of conflict is OK—and even necessary—to find the best solutions, you can take charge to control it. As a leader, you can encourage the sparks of creativity that come with managed conflict while protecting everyone from a scorching blaze fueled by drama and unnecessary politics.

  3. Strive for win/win solutions. Finding shared goals with your perceived adversaries is a smart way to change the mood of a potentially prickly interaction. Demonstrate that you understand the needs and objectives of the other people or teams. Search for ways to achieve their goals as well as yours, and conflict will likely turn into cooperation.

If you are a conflict-avoider, I recommend practicing the other four approaches to conflict resolution—in appropriate situations, of course. Keep in mind that assertive, cooperative leaders use controlled conflict to their advantage. Make peace with that idea, and I think you’ll be impressed by the positive results.

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