Sitting across from Lauren, a new client, I ask “how would you describe your relationship with conflict?” Without hesitation she replied “I would rather have a hot poker stuck through my eye than deal with conflict”. “How does this impact how you manage conflict within your team?” I asked. “I only address it if I have to, otherwise I wait and hope things take care of themselves” she said with a resigned sigh because she knew this was dropping the leadership ball.

I would rather have a hot poker stuck through my eye than deal with conflict

Most of us can relate to this attitude toward conflict. The mere mention of the word sends most of us to an unpleasant place. We don’t like it and we would rather not have to deal with it at all. The few times we have stepped up to address a conflict we have likely felt less than successful or that we made things worse. And yet we also know, like Lauren did, this is not a healthy leadership response to difficult situations. And so not only are we not managing conflict well or at all, we are also feeling like a failure as a leader as we employ the tactics of avoidance and denial in an attempt to wait out the storm.

And it is a failure

A non negotiable, arguably the most important, competency of leadership is to directly address conflict in timely and effective ways. Most people have the ability to lead when things are going well. But isn’t the very definition of leadership the ability to have positive impact and influence when things are not going well? Isn’t this the true measure of great leadership? The ability to support and inspire people to do their best work with each other even when things get tough.

Most leaders however, like Lauren, lack the mindset and skillsets to effectively deal with conflict in their workplace. They are literally lacking a core skill to perform their role. What other role do we tolerate such a thing? Imagine hiring a financial advisor who avoided numbers, or a communication strategist that balked at writing. That would be ludicrous! And that is exactly what is taking place every time a leader chooses to ignore conflict.

Imagine hiring a financial advisor who avoided numbers

The research is clear; by avoiding conflict leaders generate dysfunctional work environments. Ones characterized by negative working relationships, high turnover, strained communication, impaired teamwork and mistrust. The damage this ultimately creates is lack lustre results and an unfulfilling, stressful experience of work – for everyone.

It is time to build a healthy relationship with conflict

It is time to treat conflict with the respect and devotion it deserves. This is after all where growth, learning and transformation come from. Let us redefine our relationship with conflict as one that is willing, skilled and healthy. Let us all embrace conflict tenacity as a core leadership competence that must be built.

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