Transform conflicts into opportunities for connection, creativity, and responsibility.
Managers want to make a difference—but they face conflict every day, and it's draining. Conflict is the energy generated by a gap between what we want and what we are experiencing at any point in time. Ask most managers about it and you'll probably hear negative associations, such as distracting, upsetting, disrespectful, or drama.
Many of us have negative associations with conflict because of previous bad experiences. Google conflict—it's remarkable how many negative words are paired with it. We have come to believe that conflict is destructive; therefore, we should manage, mediate, control, or avoid it.
But is conflict really a problem?
The cost of drama
In an online poll by Next Element, 72 percent of respondents said they choose compromise to avoid conflict. That means nearly three-quarters of people are withholding their best selves when conflict comes knocking. What are we missing in terms of engagement, creativity, or solutions to our biggest problems?
Drama is one of the most damaging outcomes of conflict. Drama is defined as what happens when people use the energy of conflict to struggle against themselves or each other to feel justified about their negative behavior. Drama consumes immense amounts of energy. A CCP global study estimates the cost of workplace drama at more than $350 billion per year in the United States. The top energy vampires are gossip, lack of follow-through, absenteeism, passive-aggressive behavior, resisting change, and unproductive meetings.
Still, contrary to common belief, conflict isn't bad. For managers, the gap between what they want and what they experience may arise between performance goals and an employee's actual performance. Or a gap may appear between a manager's desire for accurate and timely information and employees who are late and sloppy with the data. A common gap is between a manager's desire for confident, competent employees who take initiative and the reality of employees who continually want to be rescued from a crisis.
These gaps aren't extreme or abnormal. They are normal, day-to-day situations that every manager deals with. Regardless of the cause, this gap generates energy. The real question is how will we spend the energy?
Conflict mismanagement traps
Sometimes managers don't have the skills, support, or experience to negotiate conflict constructively. Here are three common traps managers can fall into when they mismanage conflict.
Giving in. Conflict is difficult and often scary. It challenges our sense of self, our confidence, and our security in relationships. Managers who give in during conflict let it paralyze them. They play it safe to keep the peace, compromise to avoid discomfort, and avoid direct conversations for fear of rejection. Managers who fall into the trap of giving in send the message that conflict is bad for relationships and should be avoided.
Giving unsolicited advice. Conflict introduces a different kind of energy and can disrupt progress. It's natural to see it as a distraction that just needs to be figured out. Some leaders lose perspective during conflict, thinking it's their job to be the hero and save the day by telling everyone else what to do or by swooping in every time there's a crisis.
By doing that, they unwittingly encourage confusion around boundaries and responsibilities. Over time, it creates a culture of dependence and loss of initiative. Managers who fall into the trap of giving unsolicited advice send the message that conflict is the problem and they are the solution.
Giving ultimatums. It's tempting to believe the myth that others are responsible for the conflict and, therefore, they are the ones who need to change. Leaders who buy into this myth have no problem giving ultimatums. They believe it's OK to threaten people as a way to close the gap. Managers who fall into the trap of giving ultimatums send the message that fear, intimidation, and manipulation are acceptable ways to get others to shape up.
Negotiating with a compassion mindset
Instead of being drained, managers deserve the tools and support to turn conflict into something positive. A more productive response to conflict is to view it as a source of energy, a powerful opportunity to be leveraged.
That requires a compassion-centered mindset, because healthy conflict can't produce positive results without it. By focusing on compassion, you accept that people are valuable, capable, and responsible, and you are willing to struggle with them instead of against them during conflict. Focus on these three compassionate strategies:
Open up. Great managers aren't afraid to share their experience with conflict. They open up to themselves and others by acknowledging the discomfort that comes with conflict. They are willing to name their emotions and experiences and give others permission to do the same. By doing that, they send the message that conflict is difficult and it's OK.
Opening up has the added benefit of often revealing deeper desires and wants, which makes addressing root causes much easier. Openness fosters connection and trust, because it allows vulnerability and reinforces safety. It may sound like this:
- "I care deeply about this relationship and am worried where things are going."
- "I am anxious too. Mergers have so many unknowns."
- "It's OK to be angry."
- "I am worried about our team's productivity."
You don't have to fear or avoid conflict.
Get curious. Most people take an adversarial position during conflict, which leads to polarization. Great managers do the opposite—they get curious and show a nonjudgmental interest in their own perspective and in others' perspectives. They don't worry about who's right or wrong but instead focus on understanding and learning. They seek first to understand, not to be understood. They ask open-ended questions rather than looking for exceptions or reiterating their own point of view. They are invested in finding out how employees can become part of the solution.
Here are some examples:
- "What information would be most helpful for you?"
- "I would like to check some assumptions. May I share them with you and get your perspective?"
- "What did you learn from that mistake that would help us next time?"
- "Here are our productivity numbers. How do you interpret them?"
- "What have you tried already?"
- "What has worked for you in similar situations?"
Curiosity fosters creativity because it enables people to learn from failure and encourages shared ownership for solutions.
Focus on what matters. Many people in conflict get distracted from the real issues, seeking instead to feel justified by falling into one of the three conflict mismanagement traps described above. They focus so much on content that they lose sight of what really matters. Or they decide that everything matters, which creates an impossible dilemma for everyone.
Great leaders are able to step back, take perspective, and get crystal clear on what really matters. They can separate the what from the why. They know that behind most negative behavior is a positive, unmet need. Meeting that need and addressing bigger issues of respect, dignity, and emotional safety are keys to lasting solutions. When principles, boundaries, and values are at stake, great leaders are able to focus on one or two that are most relevant. Consider these examples:
- "Ultimately, I want to protect our stakeholders' trust. I'll support whatever we can do to achieve that."
- "I can tell how important autonomy is for you. When we can balance that with consistency in results, I am in 100 percent."
- "For me, it boils down to transparency. I don't want to do anything that undermines my credibility with the board of directors."
- "Our deadline for implementation is not negotiable."
- "I am not going to compromise on your quarterly productivity targets."
- "I will not do it for you, but I am willing to show you how to do it."
Focusing on what matters fosters responsibility because it clarifies what is most important and how each person contributes to the organization's overall purpose.
You don't have to fear or avoid conflict. When you negotiate conflict with compassion in mind, then conflict can be a great source of energy for growth. By learning to open up, get curious, and focus on what matters, you can turn gaps into opportunities.
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