In a recent executive coaching survey from Stanford University and the Miles Group, when asked about areas for personal development, nearly 43% of CEOs stated conflict management skills. A wise colleague of mine said “just imagine if a CEO came to their role with this stuff worked out.”
With the speed of information and the need to handle conflicting and competing goals on a daily basis, leaders need to hone their ability to engage in productive conflict. Whether your natural style is combative or you are conflict avoidant, how you choose to deal with conflict as a senior leader can have a critical impact on your organizational culture and your business performance.
Several years ago I worked with an organization that received numerous awards for top employer, best place to work, and driving business excellence through creating a coaching culture. What was intriguing about this company was that they had built their culture on four core values, one of which was constructive conflict.
As a technology-based organization in a very competitive environment, they believed that this value was the key to driving the creativity that was essential to their business.
The CEO and the leadership team knew they had to create a culture based on a foundation of trust and collaboration where people felt safe enough to be vulnerable and bring forward conflicting perspectives that would challenge each other’s thinking.
Here are five questions to stimulate your thinking:
1. What is your inherent response to conflict?
We all have blind spots so the first thing is to make a point of noticing how you react when in conflict. Raise your self-awareness so that when differences start to emerge, you notice not only what you are thinking, but what you are feeling. Everything is a form of information and discounting your feelings when it comes to conflict is discounting important data to consider.
2. When did you last challenge your default thinking?
With increased awareness comes the ability to challenge your own default thinking patterns. Patterns and belief systems are buried in our unconscious from the age of four or five. Challenging these thought patterns, which are more often negative, can allow you to shift your own mindset and replace negative scripts that no longer work for you with ones that are “possibility” driven (e.g., from “I am not enough ” to “I am enough”).
3. How much time do you devote to developing right-brain thinking?
Traditionally, the workplace has been constructed on left-brain thinking that has applauded and rewarded IQ. The field of neuroscience is teaching us that more understanding, appreciation and balance of left and right brain thinking (EQ) is what is required to take us into the next millennium. Developing an ability to balance head and heart thinking will help leaders manage the conflict that is necessary for inventiveness to emerge. To develop right-brain thinking, consider learning to play a musical instrument or engaging in a creative activity such as painting.
4. Do you lean into or away from conflict?
The merits of leaning into, or facing, conflict is that you can deal with the conflict as it is emerging. Having daily leadership conversations can help you develop empathy, create meaning, and face potential problems before they escalate into difficult conversations. It is often not the decisions themselves that cause people to react negatively, but the way in which decisions are communicated. Having a dose of empathy does not make you a driveling mess but can make the difference between uniting or dividing your team.
5. Are you a resilient change agent?
One of the most common complaints I hear from leaders is the inability to follow through on their goal of having a balanced lifestyle. These are dedicated, successful and extremely loyal individuals working in a fast-paced and ever-changing world. What they fail to grasp is that building resilience by looking after their own mental, physical, spiritual and emotional health is essential to sustainable leadership and personal well-being. It is also essential for managing productive conflict in the workplace. Looking after yourself first will afford you the energy to look after your team members, who in turn will take care of the work.
Conflict is not going away, so lean in, learn, and help develop the conflict management skills you will need in the future by honing your skills today!