Human beings are innately social creatures. Our desire to be harmonious, accepted and “part of the tribe” is hard-wired and influences many of our daily decisions, particularly when it comes to conflict. That is why building capacity to manage conflict openly and constructively is such an important skill for any leader.
Conflict is anytime 2+ people have different points of view (which as leaders, you are paid to have and to handle)
There are 2 kinds of conflict senior leaders face:
- Most leaders intellectually understand it is better to handle conflict as it arises and think they are adept at handling issues. The majority of the time they handle BUSINESS ISSUES – navigating negotiations, making tough decisions, dealing with customers, disagreeing on decisions, etc. Leaders deal with these kinds of conflict everyday and typically navigate them with more ease.
- The biggest area of conflict they avoid or handle poorly regards INTERPERSONAL ISSUES, primarily with talent on their teams, with peers and important stakeholders. Stakeholders include peers on the leadership team, their boss or other influential people such as their Board Chair or their private equity investors who consciously or unconsciously pose as obstacles or barriers to furthering the business forward or allowing the team to operate effectively.
Conflict avoidance is when you don’t address issues that would help you perform better together. It is when you hold back on speaking honestly about your needs – from them, for how you work together, your lack of alignment on a business issue, etc. When you withhold your point of view (and often blame them for not operating effectively), you are essentially avoiding and creating for yourself “an elephant in the room.”
Why We Avoid Interpersonal Conflict
Our ancient “lizard” brains view the world in black and white: stimulus is either safe (blueberries) or a threat (saber-tooth tiger). In modern life, we largely experience perceived threats, though our brains experience them as if they are real which makes us unconsciously react. Our physical reactions respond as if there actually is a tiger in the room.
Imagine the CEO says: “I have important feedback – come into my office, and please close the door.” BAM.
Your brain immediately gets triggered and goes to that place of fear otherwise known as the “chain of pain”: feedback = getting fired = losing my house = becoming homeless). It’s also a double whammy: leaders experience the threat when they receive AND GIVE the feedback.
Threat signal triggers a “brain hijack” and the oldest part of your brain assigned to protect your survival takes over and temporarily shuts down the rational, thinking part of our brain.
This is why in these circumstances, we don’t respond powerfully, do / say things we regret, forget basic facts we know, and don’t show up the way we wish we could have, in hindsight.
In a hijack, you reactively go into “fight, flight or freeze” mode.
Examples of how this manifests:
- FIGHT: Reacting with frustration, lashing out, defending, justifying, explaining, rationalizing, digging in, being “right” (which makes you appear as uncoach-able)
- FLIGHT: Ignoring or avoiding the issue, diverting or changing the subject, withholding information or feedback, feeling like a victim (which makes you occur as unpowerful, unaligned)
- FREEZE OR “PLAY DEAD”: Withdrawing from the relationship, conversation or situation, paralysis or inaction, festering or complaining, feeling powerless (which takes you out of the leadership game)
Each of these responses has a physical sensation that accompanies them: shallow breathing, clenched jaw, nausea, sweaty palms, etc. Whenever you experience something like that, it’s a sign you’re in hijack.
In order to overcome your brain and body’s natural reactions, you will need to withstand the physical sensations and stay in the conversation. The best way to do this is by breathing deeply.
Research shows that deep breathing for 60 seconds can reduce this fight/flight/freeze phenomenon by 80%.
Common workplace hijacks include getting or giving feedback; telling someone the truth about their behavior, your needs, etc; public speaking or speaking in a large meeting especially when senior managers are present; disagreeing with key stakeholders, etc.
There are numerous reasons why people avoid conflict. Fear of:
- What will happen if they speak up or tell the truth (they’re afraid of looking bad or incompetent)
- Being viewed as “difficult” or not on board
- Hurting the relationship, making things worse, having the person quit or act out
Conflict Avoidance In the Workplace
Conflict-avoidance is everywhere in senior executives – remember, it’s how we’re wired. Here are several real examples from clients:
- The CEO who refuses to hold his low-performing team members accountable for their behavior which leaves his high-performers feeling frustrated, disempowered and unmotivated
- The SVP who is told to “help” a struggling peer because her boss doesn’t want to deal directly with his direct report
- The Executive who wastes time at offsites with superficial observations and small-talk rather than addressing the real, pressing business issues members want to address
- The CEO who won’t let the President fire a low-performing key leadership team member, so he waits 6 months before compromising and allowing him to move this person to another part of the business
- The CEO who doesn’t want to confront his Board Chair about where the Chair thinks he can and should make decisions
The list goes on and on, and the results are always the same.
Consistent failure to address problems as they arise results in high frustration, wasted time and energy, low influence, strained communication and ultimately turnover of high performers, the wrong members on the leadership team, and poor business performance. Addressing conflict head on can make a huge impact to the success of the team and organization.
What You Can Practically Do
The starting point of all change starts with self-awareness. You have to believe it something worthy to address, that you would benefit from making a difference in building a stronger or better relationship with a key stakeholder.
Most leaders don’t want to go there and avoid it until it gets so dysfunctional that they have to take action.
A leader I know had a difficult situation with his Board chair. He spent months thinking and talking about it.
Ultimately he took these 3 steps:
- Look honestly at the situation. He was in “com-blame” mode (blaming and complaining) and wanted to wait for it to improve since the relationship was new. When he admitted that he would need to be part of the solution to create a different possibility, he woke up to his own accountability and role in the situation being what it was.
- Determine what you want to create. He got clear that he wanted to recontract about decision-making and how they shared information. They both thought the other needed to do more or less than they were doing now.
- Take action. He reached out to create the space for a real conversation. He invited the Chair to dinner and at that dinner, decided to be real about what he was thinking and needing. The Chairman also admitted what was behind his need to be part of the Enterprise technology solution, which was causing friction between them. By cracking the door open about what they were honestly thinking, they were able to discuss how they could work better going forward.
The most important elements are that you get REAL, think BIGGER than have you been about what is possible, get 10% (or more) COURAGEOUS than you have been up until now to overcome your brain’s natural wiring, and take ACTION.
If you want to have a conversation about how to gain a deeper understanding of your ability to handle conflict and how to build your capacity to create stronger relationships, contact me to set up a discovery session today.
As always, I’d love to hear what you think about this post. Please drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know your thoughts, reactions, and questions.
Yours in practice,
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