LEADING IN UNCERTAINTY: EMBRACING CONFLICT
In the past week, I’ve had three separate conversations with senior executives along the following lines; “COVID is forcing us to reprioritize what we spend our time and money on and not everyone is happy with those discussions. The recent period of cooperation and collaboration is giving way to increasing levels of conflict and disagreement. How do I become more confident and comfortable leaning into that conflict?”
Chances are, you’re facing something similar. It’s also likely that no matter how smart, senior and experienced you are, you struggle with conflict too, at least a little. You may even be like those leaders who are so uncomfortable with conflict, that your emotional and physical reactions render you ineffective and illogical in dealing with it.
To be clear, I’m using the definition of conflict from the Cambridge Dictionary; “an active disagreement between people with opposing ideas or principles,” which is the most likely kind of conflict you will experience in your organization. As such, the purpose of this blog is to not only get you more comfortable with conflict, but to help you leverage it for increased performance, innovation and collaboration through this period of uncertainty and beyond.
Change your story
When we fear or avoid conflict, it’s usually because we have a story in our head that it’s ‘bad’, ‘scary’ or ‘inappropriate’. But what if you were to believe that conflict is, in fact, an entirely normal and natural part of life as a leader? Even better, what if you believed that it’s actually necessary and even desirable in pursuit of your aspirations? You’d likely seek it out and use it to your advantage at every opportunity.
When emotions are running high, it’s typically because people care deeply about the issue at hand. If you can harness that energy, rather than avoid or suppress it, you have an opportunity to create a real breakthrough. This has certainly been my experience in working with senior leaders. I’ve learned that moments of discomfort present an unrivalled opportunity to advance outcomes and relationships at the same time. We can, and should, embrace these moments with a sense of optimism and curiosity, rather than fear and anxiety.
What is the story you hold about conflict?
Welcome the discomfort
The type of conflict we experience in organizations is typically driven by fear, worry and insecurity. Maybe I feel unheard or insignificant, maybe I feel threatened by a colleague’s intellect or insight, or maybe I’m a little worried for my job. Of course, senior executives usually won’t say that they’re scared; so, they raise their voice, talk over their colleagues and maybe even bang the table once in a while in an effort to mask their fears.
As a leader, these moments represent a real opportunity for a breakthrough; so long as you recognize what’s going on, welcome the discomfort and encourage everyone else to do the same. If you’re comfortable in the discomfort, then others are far more likely to calm down, join you there, and open up to a more authentic conversation.
Label what you see happening, share your comfort with the situation, reinforce your belief in the team, and frame the opportunity. For example, “this is clearly an emotive topic that we all care deeply about, which is why there’s conflict right now. I believe we can achieve a real breakthrough on this issue, so long as we embrace the discomfort that we’re all feeling, and remain respectful to one another as we navigate a way through.”
How comfortable are you with discomfort?
Focus on what unites you
Conflict is often the consequence of focusing disproportionately on what divides us, rather than what unites us. We start with points of disagreement, get entrenched in our positions and become increasingly obstinate. In effect, our objective progressively shifts from advancing the issue, to winning the argument at all costs. Anyone in a long-term relationship knows exactly what I’m talking about!
What if, instead, we reframed the dialogue around what unites us? It’s my experience that we typically have far more in common than we appreciate or acknowledge; especially when we work in the same country, industry, organization or team. Reframing the dialogue in this way achieves multiple outcomes simultaneously; it releases the tension in the room, it focuses everyone on the issue rather than each other, it builds momentum toward a solution, and it narrows down the disagreement to the fewest number of genuine differences. Only now, you’re in a much better place to solve for those disagreements without fear or ego.
Perhaps more importantly, you show your team what’s possible when you’re able to collectively harness conflict in pursuit of shared goals. Do this a few times in a row, and you’ll begin to ingrain it into your culture; something that all high performing teams and organizations understand.
How often do you frame discussions around what unites everyone?
I hope this blog will help you to embrace conflict in pursuit of your aspirations, and to lead with greater confidence through this period of uncertainty.
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