Accountability, Conflict Resolution, Leadership

Managing Conflict as a Leader

Unless you’re a sociopath, most of us don’t like conflicts. However, conflict is a reality every leader faces sooner or later. And when you’re in a conflict situation there are three ways most people react. They become:

  • Passive – by trying to avoid or deny it, withdraw, give in to the desires and demands of the other or simply put off facing it;
  • Aggressive – by attacking the other person’s position, ideas, character or behaviour while defending their own;
  • Passive/Aggressive – by indicating they’ll go along with the other’s desires/demands but in reality do nothing about it or, worse still, undermine their ideas, character or ability.

As a long term conflict management strategy none of these approaches really works. Successful conflict management depends on leaders being relationally assertive. That means clearly, calmly and respectfully communicating your position on the issue while also listening at depth to the other party.

In this article I outline eight practices that you can follow as a leader to effectively manage conflict.

1. Prepare Yourself Beforehand

If you know you’re about to enter a potential conflict situation prepare for it by researching as much as possible:

  • Who are involved?
  • What’s the cause?
  • Have there been similar precedents? What happened then?
  • From what you have learnt what seem to be some potential solutions/options?
  • Where appropriate, try to get the perspectives of other relevant stakeholders who are not directly involved in the issue.

But of course, one is not always aware in advance that they are about to enter a conflict zone!

2. Breathing, Voice and Body Language

When entering the conflict zone:

  • Take deep breaths – increasing the flow of oxygen into your system reduces anxiety and slows negative emotional reactions.
  • Maintain a pleasant tone of voice and don’t speak too softly or too loudly, too fast or too slowly.
  • Watch your body language ensuring it’s congruent with what you’re wanting to communicate; especially avoid threatening or over expressive gestures. (In face-to-face encounters 55% of the communication comes from one’s body language, 38% tone of voice and only 7% from the actual words.)
  • Don’t make promises or commitments you can’t be certain you can keep.

3. Listen Deeply and Ask Questions

Seek to look below the surface of what the other is saying and not just at the presenting issue or problem to try to discern the real cause generating the conflict. To do that use the following reflective listening skills:

  • Paraphrase – expressing in your own words what you’re hearing the other saying
  • Perception Check – sharing what you sense the other is feeling

Also use a few open-ended questions (i.e. ones that can’t be answered by ‘yes’ or ‘no’) to clarify if needed. ‘What else?’ is often a helpful question to ensure they have said all they have wanted to express.

Ask their opinion on possible solutions, again using paraphrase, perception check and open-ended questions where appropriate.

4. Ask How their Proposal Is Likely to Affect Others (Where Relevant)

If their concern is addressed how do they think it is likely to affect other parts of the organisation and its people. Mention specific groups you believe might be adversely impacted.

5. Seek Win-Win Solutions

By asking empowering and open-ended questions seek to generate solutions to the conflict you both (as well as the organisation) could accept. Another helpful tactic here is to say ‘and’ instead of ‘but’. For example, ‘How could we upgrade our computer system and launch the proposed market strategy?’ Using ‘but’ tends to push the other party into defensive mode, forcing them to justify and possibly strengthening their position. Whereas ‘and’ invites both parties into a more collaborative and creative response.

6. Avoid Stereotyping

Statements such as ‘you’re always coming up with impractical proposals’ or ‘you never get your reports in on time’ are guaranteed to cause the other to get off-side or become defensive. Also they may be able to identify one or more occasions that contradict your ‘always’ or ‘never’ claim, thereby undermining your credibility.

7. Summarize the Outcome

  1. If you both are able to reach a mutually acceptable solution, conclude by summarizing what that is, who is going to action it, how they will, at what cost and by when.
  2. If no solution, see whether you both can agree to escalate the concern to whom, how and by when.
  3. If neither (1) nor (2) can be achieved, check whether the other party believes their issue has been given a fair hearing and genuinely considered.

8. Follow Up

Whatever the outcome reached in (7) as the leader personally follow up later to check developments and in the case of (7.3) how the person is now feeling. By doing so you communicate respect and care, thereby helping to grow a healthy work place culture where the numbers of intractable conflicts are likely to be considerably fewer.

Author and conflict management consultant Speed Leas has identified five levels of conflict. As the conflict escalates through each of the five levels it becomes increasingly harder to resolve.

  1. Problems to Solve – This is where there is an actual difference between both parties, usually around conflicting goals, values, needs, strategies or information. Any expression of anger at this level is short-lived and easily controlled. There’s a shared objective to fix the problem.
  2. Disagreement – Here the parties involved share their concern with friends and potential allies seeking advice and support. They also move from describing the issue objectively to vaguer and more generalised assertions such as ‘lack of trust’, ‘inadequate communication’, ‘not interested in what we think’ and begin to withhold information that might compromise their position or help the other.
  3. Contest – At this level participants have moved from self-protection to winning their case. At the same time factions often emerge and parties tend to reinforce their position and easily assume a distorted view of what’s going on thereby increasing the difficulty of resolution.
  4. Fight/Flight – As the name implies, here the parties move from wanting to win to wanting to hurt or damage the other, believing the other party is completely at fault. Leas calls this level ‘Fight/Flight’ because it brings to the surface the primitive survival response. Parties are stereotyped by each other and there is no distinction between the people involved as human beings and the positions they now hold.
  5. Intractable Situations – At this level the conflict has become uncontrollable. The opposing parties see each other as not only dysfunctional but as a danger and therefore need to be removed. Each has taken entrenched positions regarding the conflict and see themselves as standing up for universal principles such as justice, truth, dignity.

Clearly then it is important that leaders need to intervene in managing the conflict at the earliest level possible; ideally at levels 1 or 2 and certainly before it reaches levels 4 and 5.


In the light of all this it’s critical that leaders are alert to potential and emerging conflicts in their organizations and equipped to intervene, preferably at Level 1. So rather than approaching conflict as a negative, see it as an opportunity if addressed before it becomes too entrenched. Through divergent perspectives and ideas creative insights could well emerge.

Graham Beattie

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