Leadership and conflict - don't forget to stir the pot!

What is the role of conflict in teams? Reflections from a recovering conflict avoiding leader...

I've been reflecting on what constitutes "good" leadership. For a long time, my understanding of good leadership focused on creating a positive, supportive environment that eliminated conflict. That is no longer my belief. I still believe an effective leader should strive to create a constructive and supportive organisational culture. Yet, I no longer believe that eliminating conflict equals creating a supportive environment - quite the contrary.

Over the last year, I've realised that conflict is critical to an organisation's success, and the primary purpose of the leader is to regulate and manage conflict. For me, this has meant and continues to mean overcoming a deep aversion to interpersonal conflict. This deeply personal reaction stems from childhood experiences with angry and temperamental outbursts within my family. For a long time, and to some extent still today, I've looked for ways to avoid anger, to de-escalate conflict before it erupts (in my mind, at least) into an explosive tirade that divides people and leaves lasting scars.

The problem with this approach, in an organisation and in life, is that it allows questions to go unanswered and potentially unique (and better) solutions to a team or organisation's challenge to go unnoticed. Furthermore, unexpressed conflict still exists; it just becomes more fossilised and difficult to overcome. As a recovering conflict avoider, my instinct has always been to smooth over the tensions, papering over the cracks rather than shining light into them or, better yet, prying them open. The result may be a happy team on the surface, but it is not a team that has resolved key questions, and it is unlikely to be a team that has learned to push the boundaries of what it can achieve. In short, while an organisation or team may be happy in the absence of conflict, it will also be mediocre.

The result of this observation is a question. How do you create a safe environment for challenge and conflict as a leader? I wanted to summarise my top three current reflections.

Be open and take the initiative to set the tone. I've discovered that it's beneficial, to be honest about what you're struggling with and how you expect the team or organisation to function. You are the playwright as a leader; it is your responsibility to describe the scene and set the expectations for the participants. If you want people to engage constructively with one another, you don't want to conjure up images of dark, dank prison cells in their minds.

So take a moment to reflect and decide how you will articulate your expectations of an organisation's behaviours and ways of behaving. Then convey this message again and again. For me, this recently meant recognising that I needed to take a step back with a leadership team I was working with. I wanted to see the team challenge each other and me, but in a fraught environment, I focused on Gantt charts to avoid conflict. I asked my colleagues to draw my attention to my conflict avoidance and tell me what they saw and how they wanted to proceed. It wasn't easy, but I believe it resulted in more productive conversations and a shift toward greater collaboration during a period of high mutual stress.

Don't be afraid to hold a mirror up to your colleagues. I'm no expert in conflict resolution, but I've learned that confronting people directly rarely results in lasting change. It is frequently best to 'hold a mirror up' and allow people to see their actions and behaviours for themselves. In practice, what does it mean to hold a mirror up? It entails posing a question about a proposed strategy or solution. Assume you were dealing with a difficult HR situation in which someone wanted to work around a policy. In that case, you might inquire about how they envision this solution working for other individuals within the organisation. Or if the proposed approach is likely to improve organisational equity, and if so, how? According to the people I've seen do this best, the key is to be genuinely curious about the answer, rather than simply asking the question to demonstrate how correct you are.

Develop your ability to confront destructive behaviour. There are numerous ways to engage inappropriate behaviour. I've discovered that starting on the right foot, with a clear set of behavioural expectations from the start, is always preferable. It is much more difficult to reset norms than it is to establish them from the start. That, however, is not always possible. In those cases, you should practise encouraging and regulating conflict, as well as reflecting on and discussing your observed behaviours and inferences, rather than passing judgement on the individual or their idea. This graphic appeals to me as a framework for thinking about how to create and manage conflict.

It took me a while and a few shocks as a leader to realise that if you are serious about constructively enabling change, you can't avoid conflict, in fact, you have to encourage it. Instead, you must develop the skills to facilitate constructive conflict and assist your team or organisation in creating a culture of productive conflict that allows you to challenge ideas and find new and better ways of working.