Addressing conflict is one of the key responsibilities of a leader. It’s not a fun job; in fact it’s often quite messy. Nevertheless, it has to be done in order for a team or organization to operate effectively. Conflict rarely resolves itself. While things may eventually seem to smooth out on the surface, there are always scars. Poorly handled conflict results in missed growth opportunities, the loss of top performers, and an unstable environment for those left behind.
It’s worth noting that, even as they should be working to resolve conflict, many managers act in ways that cause or escalate it. Certain actions, or inactions, by those in charge actually create tension and uneasiness that leads to conflict. Adept leaders regularly assess their own performance to ensure they aren’t adding to the very issues they try to prevent.
In a 2003 study of group dynamics and conflict, researchers identified five core beliefs that seem to move individuals toward conflict with each other. As leaders, we need to be on the lookout for these and do our best to address them before things get out of hand.
The first of these beliefs is Superiority. This is the feeling that I or my group is in some way superior to another individual or group. This belief can foster a sense of entitlement or protected status that puts people at odds. Managers who treat certain groups or individuals differently than others – giving them special privileges or ignoring sub-standard performance – cultivate this belief.
The second conflict-promoting belief is Injustice. This s the feeling that I have mistreated or slighted in some way. The pursuit of justice or even revenge can lead to escalating levels of conflict. Managers create a sense of injustice by adopting policies or practices that seem unfair, self-serving, or unequally applied.
A third belief to be aware of is Vulnerability. Here, an individual or group feels they have little control over important aspects of their work. A feeling of vulnerability can cause someone to act defensively or even aggressively if they feel a core part of their identity is being threatened. Managers make people feel vulnerable when they withhold resources and information necessary to do their best work and when they turn a deaf ear to reasonable requests.
Distrust is another belief that leads to conflict. Often due to being let down in some fashion, individuals who develop a feeling of distrust for others are less likely to collaborate. Teams who distrust others, or the organization, often isolate themselves and develop subcultures that eventually come into conflict with others. Managers sow distrust by failing to follow through on commitments, communicating dishonestly, and generally acting in ways contrary to their stated values.
Finally, Helplessness can lead to conflict. Helplessness is the belief that nothing you do matters in the big scheme of things. No matter how carefully you plan and act, the odds are stacked so heavily against you that success is impossible. Managers create a feeling of helplessness by setting unrealistic goals and regularly focusing on the negative without recognition of positive performance.
Keep in mind that these are core beliefs held by an individual or team. It doesn’t matter whether or not an actual injustice has occurred. All that matters is the perception that it has taken place exists. It’s become part of the affected person’s worldview. It is this belief that lays the foundation for conflict to occur. Perception is reality and, without something to counteract them, these beliefs can fester and grow until conflict erupts.
Anyone who thinks being in charge is easy doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Being a leader – a true leader – requires a great deal of focus, energy, and sacrifice. It starts by examining your own actions and taking the steps necessary to create an environment where people feel valued and engaged. Conflict is inevitable, but our participation in it is not.
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