When leaders rank their responsibilities from “This is my absolute favorite!” to “I would rather scrub toilets than do this” there is one duty you will consistently find at the bottom of the list: resolving conflict.
Just like scrubbing toilets, dealing with conflict is a necessary activity and much like scrubbing toilets, it is essential, more often than we would like.
In the words of internationally renowned conflict mediator Daniel Dana, the definition of conflict is “a condition between two people in which at least one feels angry, resentful, hostile, etc., toward the other … and which leads to disruption of effective work and morale in the workplace.”
This does not refer to disagreements, debates, and even passionate arguments that are conducted with respect and which hone solutions and better the business. Healthy “conflict” and is an important ingredient in the corporate recipe for success. Rather, unhealthy conflict simmers or seethes with negative emotions and inhibits progress and productivity.
Unhealthy conflict, left to fester results in:
- Low morale
- Poor performance
- Broken trust
- A dysfunctional culture
- People walking on eggshells
- Sniping comments in the conference room
- Sideways glances and lowered voices
- Tension so thick you could cut it with a knife
And yet, when you find yourself – either in the middle of a conflict yourself or seeing one play out – you may find yourself reaching for the scrub brush instead of addressing the conflict.
In many ways, conflict avoidance is understandable. We naturally want to sidestep the relational pain, emotional impact, and uncomfortable vulnerability that is part of conflict resolution. Not to mention the fact that resolving conflict usually involves making a commitment to behavioral change, and change is always tough.
We justify our “duck and run” decision by convincing ourselves that a conflict situation isn’t that serious. It will go away on its own. It won’t really impact the workplace.
No, no, and no.
- The best leaders recognize that conflict is a killer – sometimes overt and sometimes silent, but a killer 100% of the time. Left unaddressed, conflict causes poor employees to linger and good employees to leave. It infects customer and vendor relationships, impacting the company’s reputation in the marketplace. It makes the office a place of dread rather than fulfillment.
- Mature leaders also realize that the sooner a conflict is faced, the better – for all people involved, for customers, and for the business. Like a cancer, conflict metastasizes over time, becoming larger and more difficult to deal with. Take a simple example you have likely seen: two people have harsh words and before long the entire office is taking sides and trading gossip. Resolving conflict is never easy, but it is certainly easier to address a situation that involves two people rather than twenty.
- Wise leaders admit that resolving conflicts is about skill. Most people, candidly, are not born with that skill. They have to learn it and practice it, and a good leader is willing to do both. One of the best models for conflict resolution is the VOMP model: four straightforward steps that you can find described here.
- Finally, strong leaders accept that resolving conflict is a necessary part of their job. It’s not pleasant and it’s not enjoyable. It is also not optional. It is as essential to the workplace as picking up the scrub brush in the bathroom. For that reason, they lay hold of their determination and get the job done.
Some aspects of leadership will never be high on your list of preferred activities. Conflict resolution is one of them.
So when you hesitate to take action, remember:
- conflict is a killer that is best addressed sooner rather than later;
- it is a non-negotiable part of your job and a skill you can learn to do well.
- Resolving conflicts will strengthen your employee relationships, your workplace productivity, your business reputation, and your character as a leader.
The scrub brush will still be there when you get home.