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Leaders Should Embrace Conflict
February 2014

It's an important leadership principle that many leaders don't like hearing: You don't achieve conflict resolution by practicing conflict avoidance.

You see, too many leaders avoid conflict. Maybe they're afraid it might upset the other person or persons. Or it might force the leaders themselves to face issues that are troublesome or intimidating. Some even have the misguided belief that conflict is not nice, not dignified.

Conflict, as I define it, is simply a disagreement, a difference in ideas, opinions, or positions. So we should understand that conflict is a part of life.

During a recent discussion on fundraising at a nonprofit Board of Trustees meeting, one Trustee said, "Fundraising is all about relationships." She was right, but her statement applies to many different areas.

Leadership is all about relationships. Sales is all about relationships. Teamwork is all about relationships. Marriage, parenting, and socializing are all about relationships.

Have you ever seen a relationship that was totally devoid of conflict? I didn't think so. If conflict really is a difference of opinion, then a relationship without any difference of opinion would be boring.

The same applies to the business world. As someone once said, "If a team has two executives who think alike, one executive is unnecessary."

Effective leadership requires that you confront conflict head on. Don't be lulled into thinking that the situation will get better by avoiding it. The situation never improves, but instead it deteriorates significantly and quickly. That's when bitterness sets in.

Another reason for confronting it sooner, is that the longer you wait to address the conflict, the harder it will be to resolve, especially if it involves behavior.

For instance, if someone on your team has a habit of alienating some of the other team members, or other employees, or your customers, that behavior has developed and solidified over time. The longer you wait, the harder it will be for that person to change his or her behavior.

By resolving conflict, rather than avoiding it, you as a leader are also setting a good example. Your behavior is telling others that you believe in resolving conflict in a constructive way that treats the other person with dignity and respect.

Sometimes as leaders, the conflict we encounter doesn't involve us directly. We might see conflict between two team members.

If they won't follow your example and resolve it themselves, your job as a leader is to give them the tools and skills to resolve it, as well as the opportunity to discuss it together.

If that means bringing them together, fine. In this situation your job isn't to mediate or arbitrate, but to facilitate, because it's ultimately up to them to resolve it. And, you must hold them accountable for doing so with dignity and respect.

And you don't tell them to resolve it because you're tired of hearing other people complain, or because it's disruptive, although those statements might be true. No, you tie it to the company purpose: Resolve it because this conflict hurts our ability to serve our customers.

I'm amazed at the number of leaders, including senior executives, who practice conflict avoidance. They look at the situation from a narrow-minded view, such as "I won't confront the individual on his disruptive behavior, because he generates a lot of sales."

The effective leader looks at the big picture, and says, "Sales is only part of the organization, and the net effect of the behavior on the whole organization warrants my talking to him about this."

Another kind of conflict occurs in staff meetings, where people openly share their views. If they do so in a constructive way, this is quite healthy. It's how we as leaders gather the information and ideas necessary for making sound decisions.

We should embrace conflict, not avoid it. What are you doing to promote healthy conflict resolution?