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Why Look for Leaders to Resolve Conflict? How to Make Direct Impact

During our recent conversation on his LinkedIn Live podcast Change Your Company, host Fouad Alame asked how leaders contribute to or help resolve ongoing conflict at work. That’s such an important question—we usually blame individuals or their teams rather than leaders who may have sponsored or structured a disagreement or who otherwise condone it by not getting involved.

One of the things Fouad and I talked about is how you can have impact on a conflict even if you are “just a team member” and not a person who has structural authority.

Keep Your Wits About You

If you just keep revisiting the same conflict, going round and round on the same arguments with everyone taking the same positions, the two most likely outcomes are that the conflict will not be resolved or that you’ll actually feel worse about your situation. This situation may continue until you either try to leave the role or feel forced to pretend that everything is fine. But it’s neither healthy nor productive to pretend that the discomfort and stalling you’re experiencing are normal—or to try to get used to a false reality.

This kind of failure or regression often happens because people instinctively tune out a little bit due to fear of threat. Your brain chemistry doesn’t permit recognition of any difference in impact between a tiger chasing you and a colleague being angry and perhaps disparaging your work publicly. In either situation, the primary experience is that you’re under threat, and when you’re under threat, your field of vision narrows, your hearing dulls, and you’re less aware of your environment, so your ability to assess and respond thoughtfully is diminished just when you need it most. In a sense, you no longer have your wits about you, so you’re more likely to get stuck, and it becomes harder to think your way out of the situation.

Add or Remove Something

But in a repeatedly negative situation like this, there are still ways to shift the balance, even if your boss or another leader won’t step in to sort out the problem or put their political capital behind finding a solution. 

One of the easiest techniques is to add something new to the conflict. If you can shift everyone’s thinking even slightly, you can rebalance the weight of the conflict itself. This can be as simple as adding accurate data to the scenario under discussion, such as cost, profitability, or timing of results; in this way, you may be able to inspire people to think new thoughts and adjust their previous positions. You can also bring in customers’ or employees’ voices in the form of quantitative data or meaningful stories to encourage the participants in the situation to rethink things. It’s also a form of addition to engage a facilitator or neutral third party as a way to modify any negative tone; this can potentially level the playing field as the facilitator interprets each party to the other.

Or try subtracting, by removing some of the distractions that could be fueling the argument’s cycling. Maybe you can take away some of the feelings of competitiveness or combativeness by agreeing to let your opponent have certain wins, or by reminding everyone of your shared values, purpose, or goals—emphasizing commonality and reducing the pressure on the differences that might otherwise divide you. Sometimes you can remove something as simple as temporary time pressure so people can work things out with less fear. Any of these gambits can help you shift the dynamic and let you move forward together.

Find the Steppingstones

Some of the best outcomes I’ve gotten in change management processes have happened when I was able to get the members of a functional or interdepartmental team to work together and generate results without direction from their bosses. Good results can be so compelling that leaders fall into line with employees, rather than the other way around.

Finding areas of commonality between your supporters and opponents can provide you with the equivalent of steppingstones through the conflict. As you identify and build these areas of commonality, people will feel better about each other and even get excited about being together. Small shifts like these can reduce the sense of threat that so often fuels a conflict, and permit progress to grow incrementally.

Onward and upward—

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