It is unavoidable. At many points in life there will be conflict. It is at these times we question the value of conflict and the emotional claim that it can make on us. Is conflict really necessary? Can it be a tool to drive us forward?
Let’s start at the beginning. The degree to which we get involved in conflict often depends on how tied we are to the outcome. If the outcome will affect us directly and if our participation is needed to help that change happen, then conflict may be on our personal horizon.
However, despite our best intentions, there are also times when we enter a conflict we have not been invited into and where we may not be needed. This is especially easy in farm and family situations.
For instance, let’s imagine that Sam, the assistant farm manager, notices a row missing in a newly seeded field. Joe, the farm manager, reports to Sam that it was the new employee Fred who missed a row during seeding. Before Fred can reply, though, Dave, the owner/CEO, walks in on the conversation and intervenes with a comment.
In minutes the power has shifted up the ladder to Dave, and Fred never does get to explain the sensor issue with the seeder. The “solution,” Dave decides, is to give a “strike one” warning to Fred.
Has the situation been resolved? Not at all. Fred’s dignity and right to be heard are completely trashed and he feels resentful and vulnerable. Sam’s authority to make decisions and his desire to investigate are undercut by the power play of Dave, the CEO.
Dave never did seek or examine the information important to the discussion, using his position to “fix” the problem. Joe did not take accountability for the equipment malfunction that was his responsibility and is feeling pretty good about the shift of blame and consequence to Fred.
The conflict had been necessary on many levels, and it should have led to discussions on equipment maintenance, customer expectations (this was a custom seeding job), respect, accountability, and standard operating procedures to name but a few.
How it was handled, however, caused deep, unresolved conflict among all the parties, with unintended consequences because of the malfunction in leadership.
Leadership requires that we do not enter conflict until invited.
Had this conflict discussion been limited to Sam, Joe and Fred, it may have become clear to Sam that more information would be required and that Joe may not have been taking responsibility for his shop. At that point, Dave may be invited into the conflict. His role would not be to fix the problem, but to empower the stakeholders to diagnose and correct the real problem.
Conflict leadership also requires that we be fully prepared before entering a conflict that we have been invited to help resolve. This time requirement can be significant but it is an absolute must for effective leadership.
You cannot empower the stakeholders within the circle unless a deep dive into the history and the current situation is complete. That includes parking our own egos at the door. In fact, in many cases the interests of the leader are so intertwined with the stakeholders that a third party is required.
Always ask: What value do I bring? Am I prepared? Are the right people at the table?
If you’re the leader, always be aware that careful preparation is essential, and so is the ability to ask the questions that count. And you must also focus on your ability to build trust.
But don’t make yourself the centre. Ownership of the conflict and the outcome of it belong to the stakeholders.
I promise you this: If the head negotiator is the one getting the credit, the conflict has not really been solved.
Why then are grand negotiators given credit for conflict resolution when it is the stakeholders who have diligently worked toward a resolution or interim agreement? The simple answer is power.
Global conflicts continue because of these types of fixed resolutions. The conflict between Fred, Sam, Joe and Dave has the same properties. As owners/CEOs, the power bias we possess can blind us to progress.
We all have a bias. It is simply part of our fabric. Leadership, though, is the ability to park this bias and to build trust. Without trust, there may be concessions, but the underlying issue is not only alive and well but it can be fanned by the flames of power imbalance, real or perceived.
Conflict is a necessary part of moving forward. Leadership in conflict requires an invitation, the authenticity that builds trust, and the ability to engage with your team without bias and without influencing the outcome.
Leadership means empowering those who own the conflict to use their energy to find avenues that are of mutual value and that bring them closer to resolution.