Reframing Our Relationship With Conflict

by  Jane Perdue  |  Leadership Coaching
Reframing Our Relationship With Conflict

We sat down once a month to review the reports of accidents that had occurred the preceding month.

The assessment of preventability was an invaluable learning opportunity. We knew we weren’t going to eliminate all accidents; some were inevitable given the nature of the work.

Our purpose for the review was to gain knowledge so we could more effectively manage the conditions that caused the accidents. Conflict management merits a similar process and mindset.

Consider for a moment these statistics from the University of Texas at Arlington School of Social Work:

“If we could shrink the earth’s population to a village of 100 people, there would be 61 Asians; 12 Europeans; 14 from the Americas, both north and south; 13 Africans; and 1 Australian. 50 would be female and 50 male. 14 would be unable to read and 1 would have a college education. 3.3 would have access to the Internet. 11 would be gay or lesbian. 25 would live on less than $1 per day.”

With that level of diversity of ethnicity and sex, let alone thought, opinion, and perspective, conflict is a given.

In their book Interpersonal Conflict, Joyce Hocker and William Wilmot define conflict as the: “expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce rewards, and interference from the other parties in achieving their goals.”

Fresh Tracks, a team development company, notes: “Conflict arises from differences and when individuals come together in teams, their differences in terms of power, values, and attitudes contribute to the creation of conflict.”

These two items sum up my experience with conflict at every place I’ve worked. Same with you? Or something different?

I’ve seen managers twist themselves into pretzels trying to resolve conflict. Some want to be nice and willfully ignore it; others want to attack so they can win or prove others wrong.

Research from Linda Putman and C.E. Wilson showed that a manager’s place in organizational hierarchy influences how they handle conflict. They prefer to confront subordinates, smooth it over with superiors, and compromise with their peers and colleagues.

Diversity and difference are here to stay. That means conflict is here to stay, too. To make our lives less anxious and to open doors to personal and organizational growth, how about we quit fighting or ignoring conflict, and make friends with it instead? I think of conflict like kale—not my first choice but definitely good for me.

“Teams need conflict to function effectively. Conflict allows the team to come to terms with difficult situations, to synthesize diverse perspectives, and to make sure solutions are well thought out. Conflict is uncomfortable, but it is the source of true innovation and also a critical process in identifying and mitigating risks.”
~ Liane Davey, Psychologist & Business Strategist

Mary Parker Follett, a pioneer in the fields of organizational theory and organizational behavior and one of my favs, was an early advocate of making conflict work for, not against, us. Conflict is useful for bubbling up and resolving problems, learning our styles for managing for disagreement, learning to appreciate differences, finding alternatives, providing feedback, clarifying diverse points of view, and inviting all voices to be heard.

Follett identified how the tension of opposites is an integral part of conflict, saying, “values when put together look different from the same values considered separately, for in the act of comparison there is a simultaneous view of all values.”

Conflict forces us to deal with the paradoxes of life, love, and leadership: avoid and engage, soften and harden, open up and close down, etc. As leaders, we can have a robust relationship with conflict—and still be a nice person.

What is your advice to a new leader on how best to manage conflict?
Photo Credit: Morguefile

About The Author

Articles By jane-perdue
I’m a leadership futurist and well-mannered maverick who challenges stereotypes, sacred cows, gender bias & how we think about power. Love chocolate, TED, writing, kindness, paradox and shoes.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

John Jacob  |  10 Jul 2015  |  Reply

The key is to only engage in the conflict if you know you can keep your cool.
Question and listen to both sides of the conflict intently to find the ‘real’ sticking point, which usually isn’t what’s being argued. What information/history is each party missing from the other.
Conflict management like, like you’ve stated, when properly handled can bring teams together. Not always fun, but a reality of working with others.
Great article!

Jane Perdue  |  10 Jul 2015  |  Reply

Great advice, John, about keeping a cool head and looking for deeper issues. Sometimes I’ve discovered a hidden agenda or an unknown misunderstanding was driving the conflict. Progress could only be made once everything was “made visible.” Thanks for your kind words!

John E. Smith  |  10 Jul 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Jane – excellent and well-constructed post about a subject near and dear to my heart:)

” … differences in terms of power, values, and attitudes … ” seems to cover the reasons for conflict quite nicely, in my experience. We bring ourselves to the table, as they say, with our diverse statuses and beliefs.

However, a thing left unsaid is that we often expect others to act in accordance with our beliefs, while not extending that same expectation to ourselves. If I have strong beliefs about something, it is easy for me to slip into “crusader mode”, where my job becomes to convince others of my rightness and to force their behavior to match mine. Of course, this way of interacting is doomed to failure.

Fowlett’s take on the potential value of conflict is a solid position from which to consider conflict in organizations and groups. When a leader/manager is able to release their fear of conflict and move away from seeing a need to convert others, conflict (defined here as differences regarding how to proceed or act) can be a very useful tool for innovation and creativity.

One important thing to remember is separation of person and belief. This is core to interpersonal conflict in almost all environments. Personal attacks are counterproductive and just fan the flames, so to speak.

Another consideration is that a hugh difference exists between problems and issues.

In classes I teach on creative and critical thinking, a problem is seen as something that most people with knowledge can agree needs to be addressed. An increasing crime rate might serve as an example here, or an ailing economy that is heading the wrong direction.

However, an issue is an expression of how an individual or a group feels that the problem should be resolved. In the examples above, some folks might feel increased law enforcement is the answer, while others look at the root causes of crime, such as poverty and so on. We have a great illustration of the second example, as people in our country divide roughly into the camps that think more government or less goverment will help cure the economy.

Too often, instead of clarifying the problem definitively, we jump into discussions of the issues around that problem. This leads to long-term war between different schools of thought. If the problem is explored, identified, and clearly stated as the starting point, especially as a “How can we …?” question, rather than declarative statement (“How can we best reduce crime in our society?” leads to discussion, instead of “We gotta get rid of guns” or “Put ’em all in jail and throw away the key”, which lead to

As usual, conflict is not the problem … how we deal with conflict is:)

Thanks for a thought-provoking and nicely-stated post on an important topic.


Jane Perdue  |  10 Jul 2015  |  Reply


BIG thanks for your thoughtful and instructive comments…which should be required reading in many organizations and social groups.

Your point about getting ensnared in our own “should be” orientation is particularly insightful. Brings us back to learning how to manage paradox: don’t get so caught up in the upsides of your position that you ignore its downsides when the strength gets overplayed into a weakness. That government perspective you raise *smile*


John E. Smith  |  10 Jul 2015  |  Reply

Sorry – meant “Follett”, rather than “Fowlett” … head was not securely fastened on this morning apparently:)


Mike Henry Sr.  |  11 Jul 2015  |  Reply

I like the comment “I think of conflict like kale—not my first choice but definitely good for me.” Such a wonderful analogy. Conflict is a sign others are bringing energy. We don’t want to squash it, we want to collaboratively direct it. Thanks for the great post and reminder.

Jane Perdue  |  21 Jul 2015  |  Reply

Thanks much, Mike! Here’s to kale as an inspiration for all of us in learning to manage conflict!

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