Senior leaders can’t shrink from conflict

Barriers must be broken down so leaders can proactively resolve issues
By Glen Sollors
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/16/2013

Leaders who sweep conflict under the table put organizational success, innovation and profit at risk. So, why do many leaders avoid difficult and crucial discussions with peers?

The root cause of conflict avoidance starts with a lack of team trust, according to Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. If members of a senior leadership team trust each other, they will feel safe engaging in conflict resolution.

If senior leaders are not proactively resolving issues, they miss out on key opportunities to role model the powerful and positive impact conflict has. HR can play a key role in setting leaders up for self-regulated and timely conflict management.

Consider the following example for the purpose of the steps below: An organization is going through a culture change where business productivity is the desired byproduct. One executive doesn’t appear to be supporting the process, nor having the necessary, cascading conversations with direct reports to enable the change. Direct reports quickly become frustrated as the change is happening around them but not with them. Team morale is impacted and the frustration is evident — the effectiveness of the initiative is put at risk. What should the CEO do?

Build the foundation

Dispel the conflict myth: Conflict is a good thing. It enables innovation, personal development and growth. If conflict is not role modelled in a positive way, an environment of distrust and politics will breed which can crumble an organization’s foundation. Great leaders welcome conflict as they know it has the potential to lead to better business decisions and a commitment to results.

Evaluate leaders’ natural conflict approaches: Understanding conflict approaches builds team awareness about why people may not be stepping up — or down — when they should. How conflict was managed when we were children generally informs our natural approach to conflict: avoiding, accommodating, collaborating, competing or compromising. Growing up with sibling rivalry may lead to more of a competing style of approach. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages, depending on the situation.

In the previous example, the executive in question is a conflict avoider and not assertive enough to engage in the right conversation with direct reports due to a fear of rejection. Once a leader is aware of her approach in conflicting situations, she can evaluate the impact of her actions and whether to switch approaches and why.

Establish conflict norms: Facilitate a discussion with leadership teams in creating a list of leader-developed instructions (conflict norms) and seek consensus on how the team will resolve conflict. Conflict norms provide a foundation of dealing proactively with conflict. Norms should be simple to understand, actionable and observable, such as “When we advocate for things, give underlying motivations, intentions, interests, assumptions and context.” Specific norms allow leaders to hold others to account when they deviate from the agreement.

Approaching the conflict

Position versus interest: Conflict occurs when two sides have a difference of opinion. It is important for leaders to take a step back and evaluate what’s in it for both parties.

It can be easy to slip down the slope of judgment, position and advocacy versus understanding the interests of others. Positions may be rooted in our history, experiences and beliefs.

These can’t change but appreciating where another comes from is within our control. Leaders need to take the time to evaluate what is really important for the other party. There is a good chance that, ultimately, interests could be quite similar.

In the example, the interests of both executives would likely be about achieving higher levels of business productivity.

Having a difficult conversation

In the example, the CEO must hold the executive accountable for results. However, conflict is not easy for most as we risk upsetting others. Both parties need to feel that something is to be gained. To make these difficult conversations safe, productive and open to possibilities, HR should encourage senior leaders to take the following steps:

Describe: Share specifically what you saw or heard. It is important to be free of personal judgments and perceptions. Describe the situation as if a video camera was recording the actions taking place. Remove all bias.

In the example, the CEO may say, “In the last few team meetings, you have been the only one not to share success stories or challenges on the culture change initiative.”

Explain: Discuss impacts, standards, rationale or feelings about the situation. It is important to use “I” language. Consider the interests the other leader has. What is important for him to know and how is it impacting the bigger picture?

In the example, the CEO might say, “Increasing our business productivity is critical to our success and culture. I have heard from others that your team is feeling left behind on what we are trying to achieve.”

Ask: Take the time to understand the other person’s viewpoint, suggestions or options. This is an exploratory stage where the recipient has a chance to provide her input. Take the time to actively probe and listen for motivations, beliefs and values. Keep your own in check as you explore the other person’s — be open to possibilities.

Next, summarize what is important to each of you. After some probing in the example above, the CEO may find the leader has a skill gap in motivating and inspiring others.

Request: Make a request as to what you would like to see differently or make suggestions. This is an opportunity to collaborate and identify a solution and action plan that will accommodate both of you. Agree on next steps and hold each other accountable to action — who does what, by when? In the example, the CEO may suggest executive coaching about influencing others.

It is easy for conversations to go sideways when a structured approach is not taken or someone falls into judgment. Taking the time to evaluate the recipients’ point of view, understanding personal interests and having the conversation in a timely manner will lead to action and build trust.

Those leaders that break down conflict barriers give permission for everyone to have a conversation, collaborate and optimize performance. They create an environment where feedback is fearless, possibilities are endless, issues are resolved, and organizational growth and support flourish.

Glen Sollors is a senior consultant at Kwela Leadership and Talent Management in Vancouver. He can be reached at, (604) 318-1129 or, for more information, visit

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