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How to manage conflict as a leader

Conflict is a natural and necessary part of life for any social species, but how can you best manage it in your team as a leader?

How to manage conflict as a leader - Louise Brown Coaching

Have you ever needed to say something to your team, a client, or perhaps a member of your board, where you knew it might create some conflict, and felt uncomfortable at the thought?


On the flip side, have you ever wished there was more conflict between your team when you’re discussing critical issues, rather than you agitating for more debate?


Or have you ever found yourself involved in conflicts between your team members and wished they would manage those conflicts themselves so you could get on with your day job?!


Conflict is a highly contentious and often misunderstood concept.


Unfortunately, many of us associate it with negativity, fighting or power battles. The all-or-nothing / survive-or-die framing can feel highly charged and personal. When we think about conflict this way, our sense is that it’s highly risky, and very unappealing.


And yet, if we look at nature, we see instances of conflict and its role in thriving species all over the place. Take for example blackbirds, who are extremely territorial and fight to defend their territory during breeding season.


So what are the benefits of conflict in leadership?


1.        We get better solutions to problems 

Leadership is about making decisions, and the best decisions factor in a variety of perspectives. That’s because the landscape in which we operate is constantly evolving, and we need a 360-degree view to navigate it. When we use terms like ‘horizon-scanning’ or ‘thinking outside the box’, what we’re talking about is having access to a breadth of views, so we can find the best solution to our challenge. A single perspective doesn’t allow us this, hence why most if not all sizable organisations are led by teams of people with a range of expertise.


2.        We’re more committed to acting on our collective decisions

As humans, we don’t usually commit to a decision unless we’ve been able to pull it apart and look at it from several angles.  When we don’t have that opportunity, a decision can feel like it’s been dictated to us; we're less committed to taking action because we had no say. You’ll always get the best from your team when they are actively engaged in decisions that affect you as a team.


3.        We access more bandwidth


When we’re uncomfortable with conflict, we can spend a lot of time and energy avoiding the anticipated negative consequences. Those can be anything from upsetting a colleague, to being overlooked for a pay rise or even losing our job. As we strive to avoid these things at all costs, much of our energy goes into preserving the status quo and keeping us safe. Unsurprisingly, when we remove the fear, we also unlock that energy and bandwidth, so we can focus on adding value, rather than on protecting ourselves.


How can you help your team engage in constructive conflict as a leader?


If you want a high-performing team, having constructive conflict is essential.  Here are some things you can do to foster more constructive conflict in your team:


1.        Recognise the link between psychological safety and creative problem-solving Many CEOs and leaders overlook the relationship between feeling safe to engage in free discussion and debate without risking negative backlash, and creative, iterative, problem-solving. If you look at your leadership team and you feel like they aren’t engaging enough in problem-solving, there could be an underlying fear or psychological safety deficit. You can play a huge role in this by building more psychological safety and trust within your team.

2.        Be aware of how you model conflict in your own behaviour  By virtue of being a leader, what you do matters more than what you say. There’s no point in reprimanding your team for not being more vocal and then chastising one of them for saying the wrong thing. You need to walk that line carefully, where your priority is on the dynamic more than the content of your leadership team conversations and debates. This isn’t easy when you have ambitious targets, but it's the one thing no one else can do for you as a leader - and it's fundamental to building a high-performing team.


3.        Normalise and de-personalise it


We might have experienced a personal cost to being involved with conflict in the past. This could stem back to childhood, or it could be that the culture we work in equates conflict with the opposite of a ‘supportive’ dynamic. In these cases, we might believe that if we engage in conflict we’ll lose support. Humans are innately social animals and strive to maintain equilibrium with our fellow humans; so any risk to that makes us nervous. Normalising conflict so that the need for it to be present is positively reinforced and engaging in it doesn’t reflect badly on anyone personally, can help your team fully embrace it as they feel less vulnerable when conflict is happening.


Key takeaways: 3 things to help you develop more constructive conflict:

  1. Recognise that you play a role in establishing psychological safety for your team so they can be free to engage in conflict.

  2. Be aware of how you role model conflict in your own behaviour.

  3. Depersonalise and normalise conflict by proactively reinforcing the need for it to exist.

How tuned in to your human are you when you're leading? Are you harnessing your superpower as a leader? Get in touch or subscribe for more inspiration, tools and support.

Louise Brown - Louise Brown Coaching

If you feel you could benefit from freeing up headspace to spend more of your precious time and energy doing what you love...



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