How Great Leaders Resolve Conflict

One thing is certain: when people are put together in working groups, there will be conflict. As a leader, it’s not a question of if you will face employee conflict, it’s a matter of when. Conflict is a natural occurrence in human interaction that leaders should not only expect, but be prepared for.

As business strategist Glenn Llopis advises in the Forbes article, 4 Ways Leaders Effectively Manage Conflict, leaders who fail to address conflict within their staff experience varying levels of disruption, disunity, lowered morale and diminished productivity. Resolving conflict effectively and positively is one of the most misunderstood and often avoided aspects of leadership.

With a dual approach to conflict, where measures are taken to minimize conflict triggers and mitigate conflict once it becomes apparent, everyone benefits.

Preventing Causes of Conflict

The best way for leaders to maintain a unified environment is by understanding what conditions cause conflict and putting in place management practices that avoid those conditions.

Conflict can be briefly defined as opposition put into action. The most common way opposition surfaces is in written form. Email and memo wars are prevalent, where chains of conflict can take on a life of their own, dragging bystanders down with them.

Conflict also takes on a verbal form, where arguments not only disrupt the work of those arguing, but interfere with the work of everyone within earshot.

Lastly, and most harmful, are physical conflicts. Physical combatants require immediate action per law and your company disciplinary policies.

A major cause of conflict is competition. Many will agree that some level of competition is healthy, but when it interferes with the ability to complete assignments it becomes a breeding ground for conflict. Competing priorities and action plans are a prime example. Employees may be put in competition for budgets, time, people or potential rewards. Leaders who can level the priority and resource playing field demonstrate that people are the priority. When they accommodate the overall needs of the team as amiably as possible, they avoid unmerited competitions and the conflict that follows.

Another cause of employee conflict is poor communication. Conflict is sure to appear if people don’t feel informed, or they are not sure of what is expected of them. Speculation and rumors create uncertainty, which can trigger anxiety and elevate conflict. A culture of communication and transparency minimizes gaps in information. Make it your policy to keep people informed and involved in the activity of the organization. Being truthful, without holding back bad news, will earn you trust and greatly minimize conflict.

Unfair treatment and/or lack of equal opportunities are another cause for conflict between coworkers. When people believe that they’re left out, unappreciated or not important, it sets-up resentments, rivalries and conflict.  Leaders with awareness and engagement skills create a supportive, understanding and inclusive work environment with equal treatment and consideration that prevents the kind of insecurities that can breed conflict.

The Proper Conflict Resolution Approach

When working with opposing points of view there are a number of potential outcomes, but only one is beneficial for all:

  1. If you concede to one party, the imbalance will make short life of any peace you establish. This kind of peace is likely in appearance only.
  2. If you avoid the issues at hand and mandate a resolution, everyone loses. The result may be a conflict worse than the original, and your efforts will fare worse than doing nothing.
  3. If you require the parties compete for a win, this also establishes a worse scenario in the long run. The conflict is only inflamed.
  4. If you have the parties compromise, which is a partial concession, the peace may last a while, but compromises are soon resented. The conflict typically ends up where it started, this time with an additional issue.
  5. The most effective approach is to collaborate and come to a resolution where both sides achieve a sense of win. If both sides can agree to make similar adjustments or concessions, they will have a sense of cooperation and success. The solution is found in the middle ground, where both sides come toward it and meet there.

As a leader, your role is to facilitate a civil collaboration and resolve the conflict with the most agreeable solution. This is a significant skill that many leaders haven’t developed. The power of conflict resolution is not to decree a fix, but to guide both parties to devise a solution they can live with. Llopis suggests the leader be proactive and intentional. These approaches establish you as a trusted coach, mediator and advocate for each side.

An Effective Conflict Resolution Process

As a facilitator in employee conflict resolution, it’s the leader’s job to guide the process by using effective steps that people will understand and follow:

  1. Resolving conflict is a private matter between the opposing employees and their leader. It is a personal encounter conducted by the leader, with the goal of helping each person take away value and agreement.
  2. The leader affirms the values and principles everyone in the organization is to strive for, which includes teamwork, cooperation and fairness.
  3. A mediation process is used to hear out each side, value their perspectives and help each party understand the viewpoint of the other.
  4. The leader guides each participant to offer viable solutions. The suggestions are reviewed, modified and discussed until an agreement can be reached. This is generally not as difficult as it may appear. Solutions are often simple, but people in conflict often don’t see them without help.
  5. The parties are led into an implementation and follow-up process where progress can be monitored and reviewed. This is a critical time for strong support from the leader.

Leaders who have developed softer skills will have the most success in conflict resolution. Your empathy, authenticity and active listening are critical in developing trust in you, and the process. A qualified executive coach can be a great resource to help you hone these skills and apply them in the conflict resolution process.

The Power of Humble Leadership

Today’s leaders face innumerable challenges that previous generations never confronted: employee disengagement, cloud-based speed of commerce, political correctness, cultural diversity, social sensitivities and a hyper-focus on efficiency, among others. Pressure to succeed is higher than ever. Leaders know they must have an A-game, and they continually encounter methods that experts claim will improve proficiencies.

Humility, however, is an often-overlooked character trait that flies in the face of culturally accepted leadership norms. It may, in fact, be the most powerful attribute a leader can have to engage and inspire people. Leaders dream of motivated teams, yet many try to develop them in all the wrong ways.

Fundamental Paradigms

For generations, workplace humility was seen as a detriment, not an advantage. For the greater part of the 20th century, leaders believed organizations were best run with power, intimidation, authority and ego. Employees were told what to do and were shown the door when they failed to comply. Decisiveness, toughness and assertiveness were deemed leadership strengths. Facts and figures ruled the day, and leaders seldom prioritized employee needs.

These paradigms are still found in many corners of commerce. Old-school leaders regard softer skills as weaknesses. Unfortunately for them, the primary weakness in this mindset is results.

The word “humility” is plagued with negative connotations. Humble leaders may be erroneously viewed as unsure of themselves, permissive or unable to stand firm. Nothing can be further from the truth, and outdated leadership paradigms are responsible for countless organizational woes.

Studies and surveys over recent decades clearly show that organizational prosperity is highly connected to employee satisfaction and engagement. A company runs much better when its people feel good about what they’re doing. Recent emphasis on efficiency and growth has led leaders to examine these softer skills and pay closer attention to people’s needs.

Thus, the leadership world is trying to learn how it can engage and inspire employees, though humility’s role hasn’t yet achieved universal buy-in. Many bosses still enjoy being bosses, with the authority and privileges the role affords. Fortunately, positive, people-oriented approaches have made their way into leadership game plans, including onboarding, open communication, telecommuting, progressive office layouts and a host of enticing perks. Humility, nonetheless, must become a more popular leadership practice.

Humility’s Advantages

Employee mindsets have shifted from previous generations, according to current data. They want much more than a paycheck, seeking interpersonal connections with their leaders. They desire purpose, significance and the fulfillment associated with making a difference in the workplace. Employees want to contribute value and enjoy meaningful work. They need assurances that they’ll be given the opportunity to succeed at the tasks they’re assigned. They want to be valued, supported and encouraged. They’re looking for leaders who will connect with them and meet these needs.

When employees’ needs go unmet, the organization also suffers. Morale and attitudes steeply decline, and engagement and work ethic follow suit. Productivity and effectiveness drop, and overall business performance significantly deteriorates.

Humble leaders are more adept at meeting people’s needs because they connect with them at the most basic human level, explain organizational leadership consultants Merwyn A. Hayes and Michael D. Comer in Start with Humility: Lessons from America’s Quiet CEOs on How to Build Trust and Inspire Followers (CreateSpace, 2010). Employees sense sincerity, care and openness in a humble leader. They see someone who puts a higher priority on people’s needs than his or her own. They value a leader who will help them succeed and develop into a better worker, which promotes purpose and self-esteem. Employees become inspired and respond with respect and trust.

When encountering humility, employees feel they are listened to and heard, and their best interests are served. They experience humble leaders growing and empowering them, rather than controlling or manipulating them. Humility allows leaders to relate to their people more personably, fairly and reasonably. Humble leaders deemphasize their own importance by emphasizing their people’s worth.

A leader’s desire to meet people’s needs cultivates a loyal following and promotes positive responses. The entire organization benefits when people and practices operate optimally and life at work is enjoyable.

Humble Behaviors

Before determining how best to reflect humility, it’s important to grasp what it is and what it looks like. Perhaps pastor, speaker and author Rick Warren expresses it best: Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.

While strong leaders are stereotypically portrayed as egocentric, forceful, bold and self-serving, humility is by no means a lack of confidence or authority. It’s a mistake to view considerate and other-focused leaders as ineffective. In reality, self-serving leaders are ruining workplaces everywhere, to the point where most employees do not care for their jobs or employers. Self-serving leaders have yet to recognize the clear outcome of widespread research: Their style doesn’t work.

True humility is a response of noble character, based on a choice to regard the needs of others ahead of one’s own. At its heart, humility is characterized by a desire to serve and dedication to bettering others. Humble leaders are fulfilled by helping others achieve fulfillment. A leader with a humble approach lifts people’s spirits, self-esteem and confidence, which enhances overall organizational life.

Hayes and Comer cite numerous humble behaviors, any of which can be clearly discerned when on display. Some of the more important ones are:

Admitting mistakes – If you can be vulnerable, transparent and fallible in front of your people, your true self is revealed, and people are drawn to you. You convey safety, build trust and strengthen relationships.

Empowering people – If you push authority down to the most effective level, you give up some control to your people. This engages them and demonstrates they’re valued and trusted.

Actively listening – This shows people you’re interested in and care about them. You’ve laid the foundation for trust and forging a loyal following.

Crediting others – When your people succeed, give them the credit to build teamwork and inspire higher productivity. People will go above and beyond for a supportive leader who doesn’t steal the spotlight.

Empathy – Being sensitive to people’s trials helps you better understand their perspectives. You’ll lead them more considerately, and they’ll reciprocate with appreciation and allegiance.

Other humble behaviors include honesty, kindness, sincerity and approachability, each of which sets the stage for more favorable employee responses and mutually beneficial relationships. Humble leaders exhibit behaviors that more effectively meet people’s needs—and when their needs are met, there’s no limit to what they can accomplish.

Assess Your Humility Level

Once you grasp the basic tenets of humility, you can more accurately gauge how well you exhibit it. Start by assessing your behavior and responses to the following questions. (You can work with a trusted colleague or coach to ensure you see yourself clearly.)

Do you frequently lose your temper? Perhaps you’re short with people or pressing your points without regarding theirs. Take stock of how people respond to you. Is there an issue with your approach? If your employees try to avoid you or resist bringing up difficult topics, you may be overbearing. Focus on being calm and collected, and recognize the harm caused by a lack of kindness or empathy. Put yourself in the shoes of a person confronted with your gruff approach.

Are you a focused listener? Are people frustrated because they can’t complete their sentences with you? Do you make sense of their points, or have you missed part of the conversation? Do people’s comments indicate that you don’t understand their perspective? Practice better listening skills by eliminating distractions and making a deliberate effort to grasp everything someone is saying. Imagine being quizzed on the conversation to see if you’ve caught every point. Ask questions to verify what you were told. (If this embarrasses you, use it as an incentive to listen better.)

Are you too focused on your own image? Do you build yourself up at others’ expense? Do their victories end up on your bragging list to impress your boss? Do you give your people a chance to present how they accomplished their tasks? Any attention your people draw from success reflects directly on you. Great leaders don’t need to grab credit. They earn much more respect when their people get the credit. Advance your reputation through your team’s exemplary track record.

Do you search for sources of blame when things go wrong? Are your stories getting more creative as you try to avoid judgment? Is throwing people under the bus more the norm than the exception? Try to recognize that blame causes more damage to your reputation than the initial problem. Respect and trust are earned only when you accept responsibility for a situation, learn from it and take steps to avoid a repeat scenario. Admit to your people that you don’t know everything and you’re open to learning new ways to improve efficacy and productivity. Swallowing your pride is a major step toward achieving humility.

Making Adjustments

Leaders can certainly change—at least to a degree. Behavioral adjustments and upgrades are possible, but they take work. An entire overhaul of your behavior is generally not workable and may indicate you’re not in the correct role.

Hayes and Comer point out that a cognitive decision to improve is only the first step in practicing humility. Change is proportional to the effort you put into it. Lasting results are achieved only after rigorously practicing new behaviors.

Training your brain requires focus, repetition and ongoing feedback from others. Consider hiring a qualified professional coach to help you adopt a humbler approach to leadership. The rewards are well worth the investment.