What Should Leaders Do About Conflict?

Kevin Nash, PhD

Conflict is natural and necessary and it has the potential to be beneficial or destructive. An important role of organizational and community leaders is to leverage conflict towards productive ends. When effectively managed, conflict has the potential to promote individual and professional development and enhance performance outcomes.

Unresolved conflict, on the other hand, has the potential to damage relationships and  disrupt the work environment, depress teamwork, lower morale and increase stress. Left unresolved, conflict can poison the atmosphere and thereby negatively affect people who are not directly involved.

How we understand, approach, and manage our own conflicts and facilitate the resolution of conflicts among others is critical to being an effective and ethical leader. Effective leaders understand the sources and types of conflict that arise among individuals, groups, and organizations, and are aware of their own communication and conflict management style.

Here are some suggestions for what a leader can do about managing conflict effectively:

  • Be alert for conflict in the organization and recognize the sources and types of conflict among individuals and groups.
  • Distinguish between constructive conflict – the type that can contribute to individual and group performance, versus destructive conflict – the type that damages working relationships.
  • Understand and assess the influence of factors that can cause conflict such as cultural differences, demographic differences (e.g. gender, race, etc.), differences in values, personality clashes, and different communication styles, to name just a few.
  • Develop effective communication skills such as active listening and “talking tentatively” that are central to the successful resolution of conflict.

Unfortunately it seems that many people in leadership positions are conflict averse and adopt the “ignore it and hope it goes away” strategy to conflict resolution. Of course sometimes this strategy might be the right one to take – for example when the conflict is relatively trivial and the protagonists seem to be able to work things out between themselves.  In many cases, however, effective leaders need to step into a conflict to calm overheated emotions and inject some rational thinking.

A few leaders seem to have a natural ability to handle conflict, but many leaders need training in the tools and techniques of conflict resolution to be able to handle conflicts effectively. Thankfully there are a number of courses and self-help books available and these can be of great value in helping leaders develop their conflict handling skills. Like all skills, however, before becoming proficient, leaders need to practice their conflict resolution skills so they are ready when the situation becomes heated, emotions are running high, and rational thinking is in short supply!
nashDr. Kevin Nash divides his time between teaching at Albertus Magnus College and providing consulting services to corporate clients. After more than twenty years’ experience in sales, marketing, and human resources with major corporations, Kevin started his own consulting practice in 2006 and since then has worked with clients in a wide range of industries in the USA, Europe, Africa, and Asia. His area of specialty is helping organizations hire and develop talented employees.

Kevin has a PhD in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Capella University, an MA in Management from The University of Kent, UK, and a Diploma in Marketing from the Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland. He is a member of the Society for Human Resources Management and a Board Member of the Institute for Behavioral and Applied Management.

He lives with his wife in Newtown, Connecticut and for recreation Kevin plays music (guitar and five string banjo) and has a small sailboat on Candlewood Lake, Connecticut.


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