3 Ways that Leaders Create Conflict

Leaders don’t intentionally create conflict. However, because conflict can impair team dynamics and destructively affect the inter-workings of the team, leaders must recognize how they can unintentionally contribute to its creation.

Here are three ways that leaders unwittingly create conflict:

  1. Everyone is defined as a customer, so no one is clear on who the “real” customer is. This creates conflict because no one is aligned around the ultimate customer that the organization serves. We worked with an organization made up of attorneys and software engineers. They all had different views of who their customer was, and it created conflicting priorities in what mattered most, who got funding and what tasks were accomplished first. Through a simple process we helped them clarify the customer ecosystem and define a new name for the people inside the organization. The first step is to agree on the definition of customer. Then, review everyone you currently call “customer” and figure out who fits that definition. Stop calling everyone a customer!

  2. Lack of clarity in the decision criteria, process or authority. There are multiple dimensions to making good decisions. Leaders who allow conversation about decisions to take place without clarifying (a) what’s being decided and (b) the criteria to decide can create conflict. The natural inclination of human beings is to immediately start discussing solutions and their merits.  Step away from solutions until you’ve agreed on what’s being solved, how the solutions will be evaluated, and who gets to make the final decision. A tip for your next meeting agenda: state the outcome of each topic by specifying whether the topic is for information, for discussion (to gather input), or for the participants to make a decision.  
  3. Inability to deal with conflict. An essential leadership practice is to confront tension when it arises. Leadership is often about doing the things that other people don’t like to do. When the leader is uncomfortable with conflict and throws his or her positional power around to end the conflict, it creates greater levels of tension and conflict. Some leaders value the appearance of harmony over constructive conflict. Leaders create silos and internal disruption amongst employees when they avoid tension. Call out tension when you notice it, and view it as an opportunity to increase your leadership maturity as you lead others through constructive conflict.  

As a leader, make the time to get clear on your customer ecosystem, clarify your approach and ownership around decisions, and get comfortable being uncomfortable! Lead by example as you help your team experience constructive conflict resolution.

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