Leadership that Prevents Conflict

Leadership that Prevents Conflict

Just thinking about responding to conflict is draining and something most people tell me they avoid, and in the next breath, they also tell me they ruminate on simmering conflict situations ALL THE TIME.

Once folks make a move and take action, just about everyone I know tells me that responding to conflict is a tiring and fraught experience (but, luckily, they often add that the situation improves).

From all this stress and angst, it would be optimal not to have conflict in the first place. Isn’t that what a good leader does? Wait, how does a leader even do that?

There are two general paths to not having conflicts: deterrence and prevention.

The deterrence path is characterized by making people unwilling to engage in conflict causing behavior through surveillance and pressure.

An example of deterrence in action is when a team is working on a project, and folks feel like someone is not doing their part, so the boss institutes daily progress reports (or keystroke logging or requires everyone to be in the office at their desk for certain times) so that everyone’s progress is tracked. That data is used to shame or punish (or fire) folks not up to speed or decide on bonuses or similar. The idea is that by watching people and having people know they are being watched, they will be more motivated to do their part (theoretically, do their part well).

Similarly, on the deterrence front, some leaders have a sign on their office door that says, “Don’t bring me problems. Bring me solutions.” This is an only slightly oblique warning that “if you bring me problems, watch out!” You are deterred from bringing up concerns because of the implied threat of…something terrible happening if you do. If you know the leader to be someone with a short fuse or prone to yelling (which seems, not at all strangely, to be the type who has that sign), then you know what will happen to you for showing up with a “problem.” It is not a pleasant (or psychologically safe) environment.

The peak effectiveness of deterrence is when it is internalized as we embrace and embody capitalist systems that are fundamentally self-defeating as we sell out our individuality and personal freedom (Tara McMullin deftly explores this topic here https://explorewhatworks.com/). Deterrence typically backfires, creating an us versus them dynamic that fuels the flames of conflict.

So, if a leader is not going to deter you from conflict-causing behavior without crushing souls (of the leader themselves and their teammates) and creating more conflicts, what can you do?

Engage in emotionally intelligent conflict prevention strategies.

This could look like dismantling deterrence-based surveillance and punishment systems and instead investing in support, appreciation, and psychological safety.

Support means making sure your people can do whatever they need to do in a way that doesn’t cause conflict.

Returning to the person on the team who seems not to be pulling their weight, they may need a quiet work environment to focus, and the open office with folks checking on their progress six times a day is holding them back.

Do people have the resources to do the thing without conflict? Maybe people need training so there’s no subtle (or overt!) fight when people give/receive feedback. Perhaps people need improved communication pathways so changes are managed quickly instead of feeling like significant changes are an unwelcome and divisive surprise.

Support means people have the tools to do the thing without conflict.

Appreciation is the very individualized way people feel valued. Without appreciation, people often feel disempowered, disconnected, restrained, and like they’re having no fun. In that state, the stage is set for conflict as teammates work to be recognized for their impact by creating bigger and bigger (usually unwanted) results.

Appreciation means recognizing people for their contributions in a way that matters to them (listen to the Books Applied Podcast episode on The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace: https://spotifyanchor-web.app.link/e/CsP75NW9wFb). In practice, this can look like words, actions, or gifts (depending on what matters to the other person!) that show you recognize them and their contributions.

And then there’s psychological safety - which seems like a catch-all term for not being a garbage leader but, more specifically, means creating an environment where people can bring up concerns and be themselves without fear of punishment or shaming. If you don’t want a blow-out conflict, you’ll need to get very astute at hearing people's concerns and actively addressing them quickly.

Leaders who welcome concerns (beyond not having that “don’t bring me problems” sign) have well-developed emotional intelligence skills around listening to understand, cognitive empathy, and self-regulation. They can get to the root of a concern (even if it’s not something they necessarily agree with) and address that root cause.

This could look like doing 1-on-1 check-ins with their teammates and actively asking about their concerns in private, having a public anonymous suggestion box, actively seeking feedback on their leadership and working to improve, or being patient and listening deeply when concerns are raised in team meetings.

Psychological safety creates an environment where conflicts are derailed by addressing concerns, or disputes are managed productively with an eye toward team goals and teammate wellbeing.

Look at your leadership skills (at work, in your sport, or your life) and consider what behaviors align more with deterrence and which align with prevention. Do an inventory of your support, appreciation, and behaviors that encourage psychological safety. Where can you add attention that will prevent conflict?

These skills will help you create an environment where there is less conflict (and less stress around managing conflict) and cultivate happier, more creative teammates. I know you can do it.

[Already have conflicts that you need to manage better so they don’t continually erupt? Check out this checklist: https://wslleadership.com/conflict.]