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Conflict navigation lessons for leaders

Conflict navigation lessons for leaders

If one thing can be guaranteed about humans in the workplace, it’s conflict. It’s an inevitable fact of human collaboration and one that is all but guaranteed to surface at some point in the lifespan of any business or organisation.


We will all have experienced it in one form or another - a simmering tension, or a perceived slight suddenly boiling over and igniting. For leaders, the process of navigating conflicts when they arise will present some of the most challenging scenarios they’re ever likely to encounter. The consequences of a badly managed clash can be catastrophic, but when handled well and navigated with understanding, conflict can be a unique opportunity. Deepening and strengthening relationships, encouraging innovation, and ensuring better decision-making in the long term.

Drawing lessons from some of the foremost writers, academics and business people, in the realm of conflict resolution, let’s examine how leaders can better navigate conflicts when they arise to ensure the most beneficial outcomes for them and their businesses.

Lesson one: Identify the type of conflict


Understanding and being able to pinpoint the context and nature of any given conflict is the first crucial step towards finding an effective resolution. According to Amy Gallo, author of HBR’s "Guide to Managing Conflict at Work," there are four primary forms of conflict in the workplace:


1. Task Conflict: Gallo refers to these as conflicts over the ‘what of the work. These are conflicts that will typically involve disagreements about what should be done and what the outcomes might look like.

2. Process Conflict: Process conflicts involve the 'how' of the work - clashes over the approach to completing tasks or projects. These disagreements will centre on the methods and the processes used to achieve goals.

3. Status Conflict: Status conflict is about power, authority, and hierarchy within the team. These conflicts occur when there are disputes and disagreements over roles, responsibilities, and influence.

4. Relationship Conflict: These conflicts always centre around personal issues and tensions between team members. Relationship conflicts will often stem from one of the above forms, but can also arise independently due to personality clashes, misunderstandings, or past issues and tensions.

Being able to effectively recognise which type, or types of conflict you’re dealing with will help you tailor your approach to a resolution. Leaders who are able to get to the root cause of a disagreement quickly, can cut away much the high-emotion inherent to interpersonal conflict. Resolutions can be found faster and the damage done by clashes will be minimised.


Lesson two: Reframe and embrace conflict as inevitable and beneficial


Once a clash is identified, it’s crucial to then reframe the idea. Rather than viewing conflict as a disruption, and feeding into its high stakes nature, frame it as an opportunity for growth and innovation. Reframing conflict like this will completely alter the way in which it’s perceived and handled by teams internally. Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, offers this, “ After a lack of trust, avoidance of conflict is the second major dysfunction of any team.

Effective leaders don't shy away from conflict; they actively seek out, address and encourage differing viewpoints to create deeper commitment and foster a pursuit of truth.” By encouraging your teams to start seeing conflict as a chance to explore and discover creative solutions, the conflict itself is transformed into a powerful tool for development and problem-solving. Ultimately, the key is to not simply encourage conflict for conflict’s sake, but rather to cultivate a culture where conflict is not feared or shied away from, but embraced as normal and necessary for growth and success.


Lesson three: Equip your teams to resolve conflicts independently


Mediating and guiding individuals and teams through each and every conflict that arises between them is not sustainable, nor is it in any way an effective form of leadership. As a leader, your goal should be to empower your teams to embrace, navigate and resolve conflicts on their own. There will always be situations and scenarios where you may need to step in as a mediator. When doing so, set the ground rules for a respectful, productive conversation and prepare yourself to facilitate with empathy, impartiality, and emotional control. Remember, resolving deep-seated conflicts may require multiple conversations and patience.

In many ways, the groundwork for independent conflict resolution is laid with the embedding of a culture. One that encourages and promotes open communication, mutual respect and tolerance, but there are many additional strategies that can be implemented within teams before and during conflicts that can guide this process along:

  1. Provide conflict resolution training An obvious initial step is to offer direct access to workshops and training sessions that are focused on developing and enhancing specific conflict resolution skills. Active listening, negotiation, and problem-solving skills will equip your teams with a fundamental understanding of how best to navigate conflicts as and when they arise.

  2. Establish clear conflict resolution protocols Develop and communicate clear step-by-step protocols for addressing conflicts. These protocols should outline steps for team members to take when a conflict arises, including when to escalate issues and how to document resolutions. Having a structured approach ensures consistency and fairness in conflict management.

  3. Promote self-reflection: Get teams and individuals in the habit of regular self-reflection, especially during conflicts. In the heat of the moment it can be difficult to find space enough to look inward, so provide some guidance by asking the following questions: What is the core issue or value at stake in this clash? Can you see the situation from the other person’s perspective? If someone who didn’t know you were looking at this conflict from the outside, what would they say about it? How are you communicating with each other - is high-emotion getting in the way of what you’re trying to say?

  4. Model effective conflict resolution:  Your behaviour will always set the standard for your team, so set the bar high. Lead by example and demonstrate effective, respectful conflict resolution techniques in your own interactions. Remain calm, listen actively, and seek mutually beneficial solutions.

The goal is to build a culture of collaboration and mutual respect, where conflicts are seen as opportunities for growth and innovation. By equipping your team with the tools and mindset needed to navigate conflicts on their own, you foster a more resilient and adaptive workforce.

Navigating conflict is a critical and inevitable part of leadership and while it may never be entirely comfortable, becoming adept at leading through conflict can transform catastrophic fallout into incredible opportunities for growth. As you refine your approach to conflict management, remember that each challenge is a chance to strengthen your team’s communication, collaboration, and overall performance. In doing so, you not only enhance your leadership effectiveness but you also contribute to creating a culture where every team member feels valued, heard, and motivated to contribute their best.

At Acumen we are dedicated to equipping leaders with practical tools to tackle real-life challenges. Our comprehensive range of training and development programs, including customised interventions and off-the-shelf courses, helps organisations foster a culture of respect and empower their employees. To learn more about our programs and how they can benefit your organisation, please contact Simon at




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