Handling workplace conflict is a key skill that leaders need to develop. Some leaders try to avoid workplace conflict while others attempt to overcome it through force and intimidation.
Workplace conflict results from any situation where multiple parties are in disagreement or are striving for competing goals.
There are clearly a number of approaches to handling workplace conflict, but what are their benefits and drawbacks?
Handling workplace conflict through avoidance
Some leaders choose to handle workplace conflict by avoiding it altogether, but is this really handling it at all? Believe it or not, I’ve seen this work before, where a leader has simply avoided situations where conflict regarding a certain issue would occur. This only works when the other party is too busy to concentrate on the issue, so they stop pushing it.
Some leaders will make decisions without consulting others in order to avoid the conflict that decision-making can bring. For smaller decisions within your own team this may be OK, but making decisions that affect other stakeholders is a significant risk. Avoidant leaders go about handling workplace conflict by taking action and hoping that others won’t put up a fight.
Avoidant leaders are usually those who dislike conflict the most. They will ignore emails, avoid meetings or issues that will provoke conflict and try to push on until other people decide it’s not worth it and give in.
The biggest problem with this approach is that avoidant leaders take action that may not suit the people around them and they may produce results that are in conflict with the goals of others. This may result in a tremendous amount of wasted time as work that has been done becomes invalid.
How an avoidant leader impacts their team
The major problem for a team with an avoidant leader is that conflicts within the team may remain unresolved. Avoidant leaders often don’t tackle conflict head-on, resulting in frustration from team members who want an issue to be solved.
If an avoidant leader fails to resolve or confront conflict external to the team, they may force the team to do work that doesn’t align with others in the organisation. This can be demoralising when all the work that a team does turns out to be for nought.
Handling workplace conflict through dominance
Other leaders go about handling workplace conflict through dominant behaviour, aimed at striking fear into the hearts of their enemies.
Dominant leaders often use strong, intimidating body language and direct words to get their point across. The intent is to frighten others who don’t have a similar demeanour into doing what they want. Dominant leaders don’t actually want to be challenged. While they may appear to relish conflict, they actually just want others to do what they say without question.
After dominant leaders set the precedent that they are scary or short-tempered, they hope that this will prevent others from questioning their actions or decisions. For the most part, I would say that leaders who use dominance and fear to get things done are insecure. They don’t want other people to show them up by proving them wrong and they may not have thought their ideas through fully to defend them adequately.
The worst situation that a dominant leader can face is in a disagreement with a calm, composed opponent. Here the dominant leader runs the risk of looking like an ill-tempered, unintelligent mad person by comparison. This in turn makes the dominant leader look immature and foolish.
How a dominant leader impacts their team
A dominant leader may not be receptive to ideas from their team as they may have a “it’s my way or the highway” approach. This can be frustrating for teams who want to be more heavily involved in the way their team operates. Dominant leaders are more likely to feel threatened by team members who want to step up to the next level, which can strengthen their dominant behaviour.
Sometimes a dominant leader can push through bureaucracy and obstacles for their team to get things done. These may not always be the right things, but dominant leaders can be handy for pushing the pace of change in an organisation.
Handling workplace conflict by agreeing
Similar to the avoiders, people who handle workplace conflict by agreeing are simply hoping for the conflict to go away. This is the stereotypical yes-man or yes-woman. These leaders will say yes to anyone who is in a dominant position – perhaps their boss or customers.
Agreeing to everything is clearly a recipe for disaster, because sometimes you need to say no. Failing to push back on others is one of the primary ways that you overburden yourself and your team. This also may result in doing things that you don’t agree with or believe in, causing you to endure emotional labour which can lead to burnout.
How an agreeing leader impacts their team
A leader who agrees with everyone can be an extreme source of frustration for their team. This is because they are more likely to go about handling workplace conflict by removing it completely through agreement. This can lead to agreement to approaches the team disagrees with, or taking on so much work that everyone becomes stressed.
Additionally, if there is conflict within the team itself, an agreeing leader may find it very difficult to choose between the various opinions for fear of disappointing somebody. This can lead to frustration from the team as they lose respect for the non-committal approach.
Handling workplace conflict by collaboration
Collaborative leaders will seek out other opinions and will seek to achieve compromise when there is conflict. In many situations, this can be a great approach because people feel as if their opinions are being heard and they have real input.
One downside for collaborative leaders is that they may suffer from canvassing too many opinions when instead they should push on with getting things done.
How a collaborative leader impacts their team
Collaborative leaders can be great for team morale because they tend to like to involve people in decision making. This can have the benefit of helping team members to “step up” into having higher responsibility.
Some teams may get frustrated, however, if their leader is consistently canvassing opinions instead of getting started with something. Some team members may also not respond well to the collaborative approach when they prefer their leader to make the decisions.
Sometimes collaborative leaders are perceived as “people pleasers” or “weak” leaders because they aim to enlist people’s opinions rather than just make decisions unilaterally. They can also be seen as decisive, but in my experience, collaborative leaders are often well regarded and relatively successful.
It’s important to note that leaders don’t necessarily fall into one style of handling conflict. They may exhibit different styles in different situations. Thoughtful leaders among us will note that different styles are appropriate for different circumstances. I may elaborate on this in a future post.
One thing is for certain, however. The style you use can impact the functioning of your team and how satisfied they are with your leadership. It’s definitely worth taking the time to think about how your style is affecting your stakeholders and your team.