Dealing with conflict at work

Written by
Kim Morgan

22 Aug 2016

22 Aug 2016 • by Kim Morgan

Of course we need to employ all these empowering leadership styles but it is also important to realise that being a good leader requires a whole spectrum of approaches including the ability to deal with conflict. This often comes as a surprise to new leaders. In fact, an inability to recognise and deal with conflict is one of the factors which can derail leaders and limit the performance of their teams. 

What not to do...

Over the years I have been asked to coach many leaders who had difficulty recognising, embracing and dealing with conflict, in the following ways:

•    Never being angry and always agreeing
•    An over-eagerness to be please and to be liked
•    Constantly serving others and ignoring their own needs
•    Avoiding conflict and appeasing others at all costs
•    Having confused boundaries
•    Delegating difficult decisions to others
•    All support and cheerleading and no challenge


These behaviours can result in the following for the leader:

•    Exhaustion 
•    Stress
•    No time
•    Taking on work which team members don’t want to do
•    Loss of self/Loss of identity
•    Damage to health
•    Being dishonest 
•    Letting others down
•    Becoming a target of emotional manipulation
•    Lack of respect from the team

These behaviours can result in the following for the team members:

•    Initial feelings of “isn’t it great to work for such an easy-going boss” can be replaced by lack of respect for a leader who doesn’t deal with underperformance or poor attitude
•    No consequences for underperformance leads to high performing team members giving up in despair and leaving the team or organisation
•    Loss of confidence in leader
•    Confusion about boundaries 

If you want to be a fully-rounded leader who is respected by your team ensure that your leadership style includes an ability to tolerate and manage healthy conflict at work. Conflict can start small: someone feeling a bit disgruntled, mismanaged communication between team members, feelings about unfair treatment or discrepancies, competitiveness about allocation of tasks or responsibilities. These ‘niggles’ do not go away on their own and can escalate out of all proportion if not addressed.

For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate - Margaret Heffernan

Coaching exercise: my relationship with conflict

Our beliefs and values drive our behaviours.  Creating long-term sustainable behaviour change requires belief change and the first step to identifying our relationship with conflict is to examine our beliefs about it.  I know many people who have been on “dealing with conflict” training courses or read books or articles about it but they have not been able to implement the changes required because they have not re-examined their deep-seated beliefs about conflict.

Take some time to write down your answers or work with a friend or colleague, taking it in turn to ask one another the following coaching questions:

•    What were my early experiences of conflict?

•    What messages did I receive about conflict from my family or my environment?

•    What am I assuming will happen if I engage in conflict?  Are those assumptions reasonable and if not, what would be more reasonable assumptions to have?

•    When, where and with whom have I dealt with conflict successfully?  What contributed to that?  How did it feel? How can I learn from that?

•    When, where and with whom have I not been able to deal with conflict successfully?  What contributed to that and how did it feel? What can I learn from that?

•    What thoughts, emotions and physical feelings do I experience when I sense that conflict is present?

•    Who do I know who deals with conflict very skilfully?  What can I learn from them?  How can they help me?

•    What is the price I pay for not dealing with conflict effectively?

•    What is the benefit of embracing and confronting conflict?

•    What will happen if I don’t make any changes?

•    What one small step could I take immediately to improve my approach to dealing with conflict?