Leaders and Conflict Competence
by Craig Runde, Director of the Center for Conflict Management
While it may be a critical competency, leaders are no more comfortable or competent in dealing with conflict than anyone else. This may be one reason why leaders rank it as the top area for personal development. (Larcker, Miles, Tayan, and Gutman, 2013)
To manage conflict effectively, leaders need to be able to improve their self-awareness of how they currently manage conflict, recognize the importance of dealing with conflict constructively, learn how to regulate their emotions in conflicts settings, respond to conflict using constructive communications behaviors, and develop norms for their teams and organizations to use when addressing conflict.
The elements of conflict competence are not innate; they have to be developed. Our evolutionary heritage predisposes us to fight or flight survival responses to conflict. These instinctive reactions helped keep us alive when conflicts were matters of life and death. Yet, these same responses cause problems when our conflicts involved the ordinary disagreements between interdependent people in modern organizational settings. We need to learn and practice new ways of dealing with non-life threatening conflicts, the ones we face all the time at work.
Self-awareness can be honed by asking for feedback from colleagues or through the use of assessment instruments. In either case, it is helpful to recognize the behavior patterns that people see you using during conflicts. For example, how often do you try to listen during conflict in order to understand the other person? Alternatively, do you tend to get angry and lash out against the other person? Recognizing your existing behavior patterns helps you get a better sense about which ones can serve you well and which ones can complicate your efforts to resolve disagreements.
It is also helpful to reflect on what types of situations or behaviors in others tend to irritate you and put you at risk of responding in ineffective manners. Understanding your personal hot buttons helps prevent getting caught off guard and allows you to develop strategies for managing these triggers before they cause you to get angry in the first place.
Communication skills are typically learned in training programs. Enhancing your ability to listen carefully to others, share your own thoughts and feelings, and collaborate to create solutions to conflicts are critical skills covered in such programs. These skills can replace less effective ones like avoiding the other persons or retaliating against them. Once the skills are learned, they need to be sustained and improved by practicing using realistic simulations.
Going beyond self-improvement, leaders need to practice mentoring and coaching conflict management skills in others. They also need to help create a culture that supports constructive engagement when conflicts emerge.
The mission of the Center is to help leaders and others improve their conflict skills and competence through the use of assessment instruments and skill development courses.
1. Larcker, D., Miles, S., Tayan, B., and Gutman, M., 2013 Executive Coaching Survey, The Miles Group and Stanford University. August, 2013. (Download at: https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/faculty-research/publications/2013-executive-coaching-survey)