LEADERS DO NOT AVOID CONFLICT 2024-03-03T23:36:22-05:00


I have written about conflict avoidance in the past because it is such a common subject in leadership literature. Last week I was reminded of this important subject when the editor of my favorite daily newsletter, “SmartBrief on Leadership,” Candace Chellew, raised the subject in a personal way.

Candace showed vulnerability when she wrote:

“I don’t like confrontation and have spent most of my life being that peacekeeping leader….(W)henever humans are involved in groups, conflicts will arise. I’ve seen the damage that my own peacekeeping can do. I’ve had tough…meetings where people walked out because I tried to make everyone happy, which made no one happy.”

Candace continued: “As I progressed in my career, I realized…peacekeeping is a short-term solution. If you want to build trust, cohesion and harmony in a team…you must be able to confront issues head-on and address the conflicting feelings and desires within the group. Once I began to do that, fewer people would leave (meetings) in a huff, and still, not everyone got what they wanted – but there was more peace and connection created when we took time to understand each other.”

Think about the difference between peacekeeping and peacemaking. That is an important distinction. When I was a young leader, like Candace, I was all about peacekeeping. I strived to avoid conflict by:

-Ignoring tensions between and among important team members

-Hoping teammates could resolve their differences themselves without my getting involved

-Asking team members to intervene so I would not have to do so

-Sweeping conflict under the rug and focusing on the positives

I viewed conflict in the workplace as a “bad thing.” I knew that this perspective on conflict came from my childhood. My father and younger brother were both high-strung, and there were regular verbal disagreements in our household. My mother adopted the role of peacemaker. As I grew into adulthood, I unconsciously adopted that role for myself. With my friends, with my classmates, with my relatives, I tried to help avoid conflict. I felt comfortable playing that role and I think I was good at it.

Like Candace, I realize that I was doing my teammates and friends a disservice. I was sacrificing candor and assertiveness for the sake of ongoing peacekeeping. I may have been achieving that goal, but I was doing so at the expense of long-term solutions and progress. I was not yet smart enough to realize that “good conflict” can be extremely beneficial for relationships, for colleagues and for organizations.

Please do not make the same leadership error I made.

-Recognize the inevitability of workplace conflict.

-Acknowledge the conflicts in your department or office.

-Have honest conversations with your colleagues experiencing conflict.

-Brainstorm potential win-win approaches to resolve the conflicts.

-As the leader, make a decision that you believe benefits your team

-Stand by your decision in conversations and meetings

Live with the consequences of your decision in the short term and the long term
Remember that how you as the leader approach and handle conflict is important on several fronts:

-Your teammates will be watching what you say

-Your teammates will be watching what you do

-Your teammates will be talking about it when you are out of the room or off the Zoom screen

-Your teammates will be expecting a fair resolution

So as you move forward on your leadership journey, I invite you to come to the same realization that Candace Chellew and I have come to.

Peacekeeping in the workplace may be admirable. However, peacemaking in your workplace is much more effective – for you as the leader, for your team members and, ultimately, for your company.

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