Do You Unintentionally Create Conflict?

Jaya, a senior leader at a well-known global finance company, had become very frustrated with her life. It seemed like every day at work was an endless, high-pressure journey from one crisis to the next. To make matters worse, when Jaya was at home with her family, the problems at work made it difficult for her to enjoy the moment. Despite many attempts, she hadn’t been able to improve the situation, and no matter how hard she worked, her career seemed to have plateaued. Forced by these unpleasant circumstances to consider a different approach, she ended up discovering a great opportunity for growth and success.

Jaya’s situation represents the current reality for many people in leadership positions around the world. It also provides a good example of the types of seemingly insurmountable obstacles described by many of the leaders I have interviewed. In most cases, a chronic state of stress and unhappiness is what initially creates awareness of a problem, along with a willingness to do something to make things better. Sometimes it requires trial and error, but eventually there is positive, corrective action.

Blaming Yourself Is Not the Solution

As is usually the case, Jaya’s current reality was the result of years of living on autopilot, not being tuned in to herself, including her thoughts and feelings. It might have been natural for her to get mired in self-blame, but that wouldn’t solve anything. Earning promotions, bonuses, and other performance-related accolades felt good for a while and enabled short-lived feelings of satisfaction, such as thinking “I got this.” However, the accolades only propelled her to chase the next goal without pausing to savor all that she had already achieved. Worse yet, it felt like everything was a source of friction: people, projects, even answering emails. Conflict was a daily reality. 

Jaya was only able to shift her life in a more positive direction once she began to process the friction and frustration with the assistance of a coach. She realized that her personal crisis could be an opportunity to reduce conflict’s negative impact on her life.

Fortunately, Jaya soon discovered that to improve, she simply needed to observe where her attention was focused and expand it to include an awareness of her emotional state. Through this practice she discovered that much of the conflict and stress in her life was linked to her thoughts and reactions, which she had the ability to directly influence.

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Take Control of What You Can

Self-observation with the intention to learn how your beliefs and reactions influence your behavior is often associated with mindfulness practices. However, it is also a core component of the empirically supported cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) approach, as well as a key component of working with Emotional Intelligence. This simple strategy consists of honestly observing the way circumstances influence your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Through this process, Jaya discovered that her behaviors often created the tension that led to conflict. For example, she pushed to have her opinions and ideas heard first, and felt she had failed if they weren’t agreed to. No wonder people seemed to be negative in her presence; she had unknowingly become the person that everyone expected to argue with! To describe this as a major “aha moment” is an understatement, and the realization also had a significant impact on Jaya’s career. Jaya—again with the assistance of a coach—invested in understanding how and why she had developed these behaviors in order to replace them with something better. 

You Probably Didn’t Decide to Be Difficult to Work With

Jaya’s story closely matches what many leaders have told me about unintentionally developing poor interpersonal behaviors. This situation can naturally arise from emulating superiors, or even parents, especially without the benefit of effective leadership training. In order to change these patterns, it is important that you create an environment where others would like to help you succeed long-term, versus conceding to you on one point, or simply acting like they are onboard with your vision.

Our natural tendency to adapt to organizational culture is another culprit, as many leaders have learned to accept conflict, just like stress, as a normal part of their workplace. Struggling leaders tend to believe they are doing a good job of exceeding expectations based upon their interpretation of organizational norms. However, it is not uncommon for a leader to be unclear on the appropriate strategies to use in specific situations, and many continue to use command and control-era behaviors that are now known to be ineffective. These distinctions are important, because realizing that they were failing due to do well-intentioned ignorance, rather than incompetence, seemed to help energize many leaders’ commitment to transformation.

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Change Doesn’t Need to Be Difficult 

Questioning the beliefs and experiences that contribute to ineffective leadership proved to be a good investment of time for leaders I studied. For example, Jaya’s focus on this point revealed that she had a need to feel in control of meetings, including the agenda creation, facilitation, and communication process. This need also prompted her to watch for, and be prepared to fight, potential threats to her feeling of control. Once she was able to self-regulate behaviors linked to this need, Jaya began to be pleasantly surprised.

The surprise came from seeing how capable and willing to assume responsibility her coworkers were. By consciously creating space for greater participation, Jaya found that other people had plans and solutions to problems that were as good as, or better than hers. She also discovered that much of the work she considered burdensome functioned as a fertile learning opportunity for others. Giving coworkers the chance to help with her workload had a direct, positive impact on Jaya’s stress level, in addition to making her home life more fulfilling. Ultimately, her stress levels declined, while the quality of her output improved, resulting in a promotion. 

How to More Effectively Manage Conflict

My interviews with leaders focused on two aspects of awareness, both of which are crucial to resolving a dysfunctional relationship with conflict. First, it helps to identify the potential causes of your reactions to perceived conflict, which then enables you to identify your role in creating unnecessary conflict. Second, what you learn about yourself during this process can be immediately applied to understanding what beliefs or needs may be compelling others to react to you in a negative manner. This approach will contribute to success at reducing and managing conflict by helping you:

  1. Learn to detect the early signs of conflict arising in yourself.
  2. Develop your ability to regulate reactions that contribute to conflict.
  3. Identify the triggers and causal beliefs behind these reactions.
  4. Invite others to express opinions that don’t align with yours.
  5. Create opportunities for others to make decisions and receive recognition.

Above all, the leaders I’ve studied have come to view effectively managed conflict as an opportunity to surface potentially significant problems, strengthen relationships, and boost engagement. They were only able to realize this value once they focused on giving up any need to feel important or in control. This change in perspective allowed them to have a positive relationship with conflict, and ultimately navigate that aspect of their environments much more effectively.

“Effectively managed conflict can become an opportunity to surface potentially significant problems, strengthen relationships, and boost engagement.”

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