Conflict competent leaders can not be the exclusive coach for every learner. Certainly they look for opportunities to actively teach and coach, but it’s just as critical that they offer opportunities for development. This can be accomplished in several ways.
The single most frequent reason people choose to participate in the courses we offer at LDI is that they have been referred by others. Leaders have suggested that subordinates attend to help them address a conflict with which they’ve been struggling. Past participants have recommended to peers that they attend so they can share the experience and use the techniques to expand their opportunities when problem-solving or resolving conflict. The point is that conflict competent leaders know that learning how to handle conflict is critical for being successful in any organization. One way to learn is by attending classes and training programs designed for this purpose.
Attending training programs though, we admit, is not necessarily the best way or the only way to develop one’s skills for handling conflict. Training programs for any leadership competency are most useful for establishing self awareness, learning some basic techniques, practicing them, and making plans for applying knowledge and techniques when back at work. Training programs alone are not the most effective venues for real learning and development. The best developmental opportunities come with experience. Leaders can be instrumental in identifying those opportunities, providing support and encouragement during the opportunities, and debriefing with the participant after they’ve experienced the learning opportunity.
This is not to suggest that leaders look for just any conflict situation in which to dump their protégés. With any development experience, the right combination of challenge and support are critical for successful learning. Certainly leaders can and should provide suitably challenging experiences for others. And given the right circumstances, leaders can put their protégés in situations that require the use of conflict resolution skills. That said, as we have suggested many times, conflict is a normally occurring and inevitable phenomenon in the workplace. It is likely that during almost any developmental assignment conflict will occur. The key is how the leader chooses to challenge and support their protégés during such experiences.
As an example, let’s revisit the conflict experienced by Harriet and Jeanne. Harriet is the elementary school principal and Jeanne is a guidance counselor at the school. Jeanne recently filed a report citing her belief that one of the students may be the victim of abuse. A disagreement ensued when Harriet, after reviewing Jeanne’s report, decided that no further action was warranted.
Jeanne was very disappointed with Harriet’s decision. She decided to speak to her “dotted lineEboss, the district supervisor for student support services. Jeanne’s daily direct reporting relationship is to Harriet, but her reporting relationship for education and development purposes is to the district supervisor, Nancy.
Nancy listened carefully to Jeanne’s description of the situation with the student, her handling of the report, and her discussion with the principal. She knew that Jeanne was very upset with the principal’s decision. Nancy guessed that Jeanne was looking for agreement with and support of lodging an official protest. She recognized Jeanne’s frustration and complimented her dedication to and concern for her students. Nancy also asked Jeanne many questions about the circumstances including: how well Jeanne knew the student, how well Harriet knew the student, how long Jeanne had been working with the student, in what capacity she came to know the student, what else the student’s file indicated about the student’s situation, how well she and Harriet had worked together in the past, etc. Throughout the conversation, Nancy made sure to balance her questions with appreciation and support while being careful not to unilaterally agree with Jeanne’s position.
Jeanne felt supported by Nancy, but knew also that she was carefully considering all the possibilities connected to the situation. Even as the conversation unfolded, Jeanne began to realize that she did not have all the answers to Nancy’s questions and therefore, might not know all the information she needed to draw her conclusions. So when Nancy asked Jeanne what she could you do to better understand the student’s situation and Harriet’s decision, Jeanne already knew that she needed to schedule an appointment with Harriet to review all that had happened.
If Jeanne had been resistant, Nancy may have needed to suggest that Jeanne schedule a time to speak to Harriet again to review the matter. In this case, the use of simple, focused questions were all that was necessary to lead Jeanne to that very same conclusion. Nancy, although she did not directly provide the developmental experience for Jeanne, was instrumental in enabling Jeanne to reassess her actions and decide to re-engage Harriet to resolve their differences.
This kind of interaction is a prime example of how a conflict competent leader provides learning opportunities for others. Learning opportunities are not always of the formal variety, like recommending a class or suggesting a reading. Leaders will have opportunities to encourage others to face adversity, make assignments that include personal challenges, and insist that others take action. The key for transforming such circumstances into learning opportunities is the leader’s ability to provide support for the learner as they confront the challenging situation.
Embracing Constructive Conflict
When asked to create a list of some of the greatest leaders of all time, many of the groups with whom we work suggest a number of people over and over. John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Ghandi routinely make the list. When asked to identify characteristics or traits of these leaders that propel them to the top of the list, invariably descriptors such as vision, confidence, passion, and enthusiasm are cited. We believe those very same traits are critical for changing the way we think about conflict. Leaders who have vision regarding conflict know that conflict can be the catalyst to breakthrough ideas and novel approaches to organizational issues. Those who demonstrate confidence when confronting conflict inspire trust and optimism among their followers. Leaders who are passionate about their beliefs and are just as passionate about understanding othersEviews are admired for their ability and willingness to consider all points of view. And those who show enthusiasm for differing views (“Great, you see it differently!E provide a model of perspective-taking that is critical for handling conflict constructively. Leaders who combine these and similar traits illustrate our notion of embracing conflict. They also would most certainly make our list of the greatest conflict competent leaders of all time.
Traits and characteristics are not the only ingredients in embracing conflict. It also requires technique. In their unrivaled work on negotiation and dispute resolution, Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton (1991) identify a number of steps that lead to mutually acceptable agreements. Two of those steps are enormously useful for leaders in their quest to embrace conflict. First, separate the people from the problem. Conflict competent leaders never fixate on the parties in a conflict. By defining and analyzing the problem instead of focusing on the people involved, leaders begin embracing the conflict while protecting relationships. Second, focus on interests not positions. By getting to the level of what the conflict partners really want leaders discover what is behind positions. This degree of insight and analysis enables continued embracing of the conflict. Leaders who practice separating people from the problem and focusing on interests rather than positions become highly engaged in the substance of the conflict. They become committed to resolving the conflict and confident that the conflict can not only be resolved, but it can provide a basis for continued dialogue, options, and creativity. By engaging conflict with this sense of commitment and confidence, leaders, whether directly involved or playing a third party role, can establish a tone of optimism that can permeate even the most intense situations.
Philosophically speaking, embracing conflict seems like a great concept. Who would not want to embrace potentially ground-breaking discussions or opportunities to resolve frustrating issues? Practically speaking, who in their right mind wants to embrace situations that may appear as ugly, loud, angry, and polarizing as the weigh-in for the heavyweight boxing championship? We do not mean to imply that this is easy. We do mean to imply however, that those who embrace conflicts as opportunities have a much better chance of: 1) persevering through the tough, emotional challenges associated with difficult conflicts, 2) getting to the root of the conflict in ways that enable resolution, 3) empowering the conflict partners to have discussions about the conflict that are safe, fair, and civil, and 4) finding resolutions that meet or exceed the expectations of those involved in the conflict.
Leaders influence conflict effectively by:
1. Staying calm
2. Encouraging civility, fairness, and safety
3. Teaching and coaching
4. Providing learning opportunities
5. Embracing constructive conflict
Leaders, who in the face of conflict choose to act in the aforementioned ways, are those who have the best chances of handling conflict in ways that result in acceptable options and satisfying agreements. Conflict competent leaders are adept at modeling and encouraging these kinds of positive responses to conflict. As we continue to examine how conflict competent leaders accomplish this, we next focus specifically on their behaviors. What do conflict competent leaders do and say before, during, and after conflict?