Editor's Note: This is part of an ongoing series by 4-Profit, which provides coaching, peer group and speaking services around leadership, strategy, sales, service, management and marketing. 4-Profit team members regularly provide their insight, Building Better Businesses the 4-Profit Way, on CRN.com.
The ancient Greeks had the right idea when they scribed the words "Know thyself" and "Nothing in excess" over the temple at Delphi. How a leader handles conflict is an area where it is vitally important to "know thyself." Are you so comfortable with conflict that you consistently seek it out? Do you strategically choose your battles? Or, do you feel uncomfortable with conflict and tend to avoid it?
On the "nothing in excess" front, do you or your employees turn most issues into a battle, or go to the other extreme and allow silence to reign rather than engage in conflict, perhaps even constructive conflict? As a leader, your conflict management style matters. It can influence the success or failure of your company's vision, the implementation of products, the satisfaction of customers and employees and ultimately, the bottom line.
It's difficult to make good decisions as a team without candid conversation and constructive conflict around the pros and cons of pursuing various options. This discussion, whether heated or not, can feel like conflict to team members who, by nature, are not as comfortable with conflict. However, if the conversation turns a discussion into a battle, he or she might be squelching constructive conflict within the team. The leader may win the battle, but not necessarily reach the best decisions if others feel too intimidated to participate in the decision-making process. Intimidated employees often do not bring their best gifts and talents to the organization, nor do they experience the pleasure of being engaged in their work.
On the other hand, if a leader is uncomfortable with conflict and tends to avoid it, he or she may fail to resolve issues or establish clarity for the team, or may keep tabling important decisions. He or she may also fail to hold the team accountable for results. Holding others accountable can feel like conflict to someone who is conflict-adverse. This trait makes it hard for employees and the organization as a whole to excel. When there is a lack of conversational freedom to address difficult topics, problems within the organization do not get resolved. Dealing with the same unresolved problems repeatedly diminishes an employee's motivation and ability to take initiative. Everyone loses.
Here are three steps to achieve healthy conflict:
1. Pay attention to team dynamics. It isn't easy to "know thyself" when it comes to the excesses of handling conflict (too much or too little). Observe the behavior of your management team when discussing a course of action or making a decision. Does someone speak up all of the time? Do others rarely offer an opinion? Pay attention to the body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and participation level of each member of the team. Some variation in the level of participation of team members is normal, but wide variation in the amount of participation is unhealthy. These are your cues that across-the-board constructive conflict is not occurring.
2. Look at your own behavior. As honestly as possible, determine if your response to various types of conflict is mostly on target, a little off here or there, or consistently too much or too little. This is an area where blind spots often occur. If your response to conflict isn't serving you, your employees or your business, it may be time to work on that issue. You might need to turn outward and ask a trusted (and truthful!) associate to give you feedback, or seek the help of a coach.
3. Are you holding yourself and others accountable for results? Does your team have clarity about the vision and how to execute on the vision? With clarity comes accountability. If you are not helping yourself or your team to stay accountable to the company's goals, you may be experiencing discomfort about conflict. Likewise, if members of the management team are not holding their team accountable for results, they may be experiencing discomfort about conflict.
Remember, how a leader and the management team handles conflict says a lot about how they make decisions, make commitments and hold each other accountable for results. The dynamics of dealing with conflict can influence the success or failure of your company in ways that are subtle, but extremely pervasive. If you "know thyself" on this topic, you can apply "nothing in excess" to achieve constructive conflict within the management team, and achieve the most effective choices for your company.
Jo Anne Myers, MBA, MSW, is a communication coach at 4-Profit. She has spent more than 30 years working and consulting on the "the people side of the business." Her unique blend of professional experience and education is focused on improving how individuals achieve results together.
PUBLISHED JUNE 19, 2013