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Leadership equilibrium Step 2 – Conquering Conflict

7 December 2022

Entering in at number two on my list of 10 rules for leaders navigating opportunity and risk is everything I know about conquering conflict. In my experience, conflict in business can arise in two definitive scenarios. The first is when a person deliberately uses business conflict as a weapon to control situations. To belittle and demean to assert their influence. No surprise then that this toxic behaviour should be stamped out by leaders from the get-go.

But the second conflict I want to explore with you, should be fostered and encouraged by leaders. Conscientious conflict is just as direct, but much less hostile. And those inclined to this boardroom demeanour can create the catalysts for innovation and spark that next big idea…

Ultimately, when it comes to leadership, I believe that credibility and success are intrinsic to your ability to recognise and address these two very different kinds of conflict. And here’s why:

Conflict as a weapon

Let’s begin by unpicking the first of the two: conflict as a weapon. If you’ve followed the series so far, you’ll know that the foundations of Rule 1: Extreme Accountability were built from a breakdown with my former business partner, before I launched Spirant Group.

In hindsight, I can see how one of the causes of that breakdown was my failure to tackle the conflict. As an adversarial individual, my former business partner was often at loggerheads with other stakeholders. In various business scenarios, he would actively seek out conflict to bolster a perception of power and untouchability, becoming aggressive, disrespectful, and at times offensive. By using conflict as a weapon to dominate and demean, he felt he was able to reinforce his seniority and demand respect.

Back then, I was often called upon to mediate. And whilst his standpoint was sometimes fair and other times misconceived, it was the whole delivery of the argument that was inconsistent with my values and business ethos. Yet despite this, for years I let these unsavoury conversations play out within the business. I did broach his combative approach on several occasions, but I never fully articulated my objection to it or discussed the potential consequences. Instead, I focused on finding a solution to the conflict.

On reflection, I avoided the conflict for the following key reasons:

  • I was prioritising short-term gain. By finding a temporary solution to the conflict, I was able to minimise the disruption to business operations and prioritise productivity. Yet the real solution for long-term prosperity would have been to create a working environment where everyone was treated with dignity and respect.
  • I was being far too agreeable. I was seeking to placate my partner and comfort his opponent. I wanted to be seen as a diplomatic peacemaker:  a good guy. But this is not a sufficient leadership strategy when the pressure is on.
  • I was being dishonest with myself. At times I was excusing my partner’s behaviour, or ignoring it, or playing devil’s advocate despite there being a clear pattern of behaviour. And dishonesty as a leader – even if it is dishonesty through omission – is always bad news, more on that later in the series.

By behaving in this way and avoiding conflict, every time I sought a diplomatic solution, the following happened:

  • My business partner became a little stronger in his authority and I a little weaker.
  • My credibility as leader was damaged in the eyes of myself, my partner, whomever his opponent was and the wider team.
  • I was inadvertently training myself to procrastinate and avoid conflict rather than tackle it head-on.
  • On each occasion I dodged conflict, the business culture became a little more toxic.

Does any of this resonate?

During that decade of my career, there were explosive clashes between my former business partner and various opponents – but eventually, the time served my diplomatic solution-solving. I confronted the behaviour head-on, and, as you might expect from someone of this inclination, so ensued the breakdown of our business relationship.

Once we had parted ways, I was able to see what a positive change this was both for my professional and personal life. It was a journey that I should have started sooner, and the delayed start was a result of my failure to deal with conflict as a weapon.

As a leader, if you’re faced with a senior colleague using conflict as a weapon to demean and dominate, you need to act quickly.

In the first instance, here are my tips for addressing hostile behaviour:

  1. First, your approach should be calm and rational, explaining how you view the behaviour and why.
  2. You must stipulate that you are addressing the behaviour because you respect the person and care about their role in the business.
  3. Your body language and eye contact must be soft and inclusive.
  4. You should reach a position where either the person accepts what you say or disagrees on amicable grounds.
  5. Whichever of the two outcomes is reached, you should thank the person for their time and convey what was discussed in writing.

If the behaviour then escalates, so must the way you handle matters. If things get worse, this is my advice:

  1. Begin to talk about consequences. This should start with the consequences related to the business through repeated disruptive behaviour. If it persists, the discussion must then turn to consequences for the individual if their conduct is not brought in line with the values of the business and your direction as a leader.
  2. You must use the apparatus of the business to address the person’s behavior if these informal discussions do not work. Whoever they are, this must involve HR; formal meetings; recorded minutes and the evoking of appropriate grievance procedures.
  3. If you are contacted by other senior colleagues with objections about the person’s behaviour, they should at first be encouraged to address them themselves. The fact that several colleagues have similar views about the person’s demeanour may influence how the person responds.

If I’d followed what I know now, back then, things would have been a lot more positive. By enforcing this and tackling the behaviour head-on, your credibility and respect as a fair leader will be reinforced. In the most extreme example (such as mine) taking this direct action may lead to you losing your leadership position or leaving the business. This will cause you short-term disruption but remaining as a diplomatic peacemaker in a toxic business environment is a much worse fate. As a leader, stamping out conflict as a weapon is essential even if it means taking your ethos and values elsewhere.

Yet there also exists another kind of conflict in business…

Conscientious conflict

It’s one that is altogether less ugly and should even be encouraged as a way of creating an innovation-first business where change isn’t met with hostility. I have worked with several decision-makers and managers over the years who engage in conflict in a conscientious manner. Delivered with tact and respect, it can be one of the most valuable assets a leader can have – the ability to challenge, probe and question.

So, what are the traits of a person who engages in conscientious conflict?

  • They approach boardroom issues in a manner that is firm, often abrasive, and sometimes confrontational.
  • They are well prepared to tackle the issue, know their material and never engage in conflict for the sake of aggression.
  • They do not engage in conflict to demean or dominate. In fact, they often adopt their bristly approach with colleagues they respect highly or are friends with.
  • They do not manufacture outrage. They use their natural style to approach issues of business relevance.
  • They are rational and will back down when presented with a cogent and persuasive counter-argument.
  • However thorny they may appear; their manner is dictated by the best interests of the team and business. It can also be influenced by their own best interests, but not where they set out to win at the expense of others.

As a leader, when you identify a senior colleague who is inclined to conscientious conflict, it’s your responsibility to protect them from relentlessly agreeable colleagues. On the condition that their approach is respectful, and doesn’t cross the line into aggression, you want to deploy a person with this demeanour into conversations that will spark productivity, innovation, and ideas in the business.

If the team surrounding that person simply agrees, then conscientious conflict is wasted and becomes instruction rather than construction.

The advantages of encouraging conscientious conflict have an impact on both your success as a leader and the success of the business:

  • You will be recognised as an open-minded leader who embraces a coalition of personalities, strengths, and weaknesses around the boardroom table.
  • An open debate where there are no holds barred encourages problem-solving, creativity and tough decisions.
  • Your colleagues in the leadership team will also be kept nimble in anticipation of being brought to task by the diligent bulldog! This leads to a more functional and better-performing board and business.
  • You want to avoid meetings which descend into boring pootles through an agenda with the next steps recorded. Tension, argument, and disagreement can lead to lively debates with relationships of mutual trust emerging.

As a leader, fostering conscientious conflict within your business is essential to creating a culture that embraces change and innovation. But it’s also important you adopt your own style of conscientious conflict too, never settling and always being open to new ideas and a better way of doing things.

There you have it. Two very different kinds of conflict which require equal amounts of diligence from business leaders. Because whilst ignoring the first can create a toxic culture, missing the second can be just as damaging; a lost opportunity to create a dynamic and ambitious workforce.

Now over to you to conquer conflict.