I used to think conflict was due to some difficult personality or situation, but then one day I started playing with an idea: the idea that there is no conflict unless there's an inner conflict. When you're disturbed, angry, emotional, or impatient, when you're thinking about what other people are doing wrong, or when you're dredging up the past and rehashing old grudges, you'll have conflict even when no one else is physically in the room. I asked myself the question, Could it be that the first step to effectively managing conflict is to resolve inner conflict first? To be sure, you can't resolve inner conflict if you don't even know you have it, so I started paying attention to how inner conflict arises and grows in my own life. I'm willing to share my challenges for the purpose of learning.
Inner conflict arises when I want something but I hesitate to ask for what I want, or when I'm impatient but everything around me is moving slowly. Inner conflict grows when I believe every thought without challenging my narrative, or when I assume I know someone's motives but don't have the courage to question their behaviors. Inner conflict deepens when I hold a grudge or continue to harbor past resentments. When I put off a conversation because I fear the other person's defensiveness, it's only my inner conflict keeping me from moving forward; after all, the conversation hasn't even happened yet.
One of the most difficult aspects of leadership is managing conflict instead of avoiding it. My hope is that after reading this book, you will no longer avoid conflict but instead realize that conflict can be your greatest teacher and a catalyst for leadership growth.
Conflict Is Not the Problem
Leaders have an opportunity to be a channel for chaos or a catalyst for clarity.
One of the toughest parts of your job as a leader is managing conflict. You'll have to initiate difficult conversations about performance with employees you care for, and you'll have to speak about behavioral issues with those you wish would move on. The conflicts you'll face on your leadership journey won't only be with employees. Having a title or positional power doesn't make conflict any easier; advancement requires you to become more conflict capable. You'll experience conflict with those in higher power, perhaps a board of directors, a top-level executive, a peer, a partner, a vendor, or a client. You'll have to make difficult decisions where you feel misaligned and uncertain, and you'll feel "inner conflict," that feeling when your values clash. Conflict can be seen as a problem that keeps you stuck, or conflict can be seen as a teacher that helps you grow.
Why I Wrote This Book
I wrote this book because the ideas in this book have helped me and thousands of other leaders, and I think the ideas, tips, techniques, and methods will help you. My philosophy is this: if I've had a problem, it means I'm not alone. It means millions of other people have the same problem or will have the same problem. Everything I now teach, speak, or write about is something I either have worked through or am working on.
I'm not trying to be a guru. It's dangerous to put anyone on a pedestal or give someone else the responsibility for your decisions. I don't believe in gurus, but I believe in teachers. Teachers show up as authors, speakers, facilitators, thought leaders, professors, or experts.
Our teachers also show up as the boss we can't stand, the complaining coworker who drains our energy, the employee that won't engage, and the person who has a different political viewpoint. 'Teachers are all around us if we have the eyes to see'. I'm inviting you, as you read through this book, to see conflict as your teacher and me as the facilitator.
Over the last twenty years of working with other leaders, I observed that conflict that had escalated to creating a toxic work environment was due to one simple area of neglect: a conversation that should have happened but didn't. I saw avoidance of conflict at every level in almost every organization.
I've also surveyed hundreds of leaders in various industries over the years to get a sense of how they viewed conflict and how they assessed their own skills and confidence around resolving conflict. The more experienced the leader, the more awareness they seemed to have about their conflict aversion and lack of capabilities. The more experienced leaders scored themselves as average in confidence and competence, indicating they knew there was room to grow. What was interesting was how new or inexperienced leaders perceived their competencies. The least experienced leaders scored high on both confidence and capabilities. For example, new supervisors in manufacturing, construction, healthcare, or education often overestimated their ability to manage conflict. Instead of avoiding, they were overly aggressive; I would say a little "drunk with power." Others used appeasing as a way to get everyone to like them. All leaders had the desire to be good leaders, but they often lacked specific skills to have conversations in a way that inspired or motivated employees. When the issues included conflict with their superiors, appeasing seemed to be the top coping method. While many leaders gave head nods and lip service to embracing conflict, very few of them lived that reality in their leadership behavior. In private conversations, top leaders admit that they want to avoid or eliminate conflict.