How to turn conflicts into your growth engine

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“Conflicts look bad. I always prepare touchy agenda points with my 2 senior leaders before leadership team meetings. This way senior leadership presents a united front,” recently mentioned the CEO of a 200-people company.

Most leadership teams have too few open, healthy conflicts. This makes them less effective, reduces decision quality, and ultimately slows down business growth.  How can you step outside of your comfort zone and mine more healthy conflicts?

Healthy conflicts help propel your business forward

Many CEOs stick to their comfort zone: you avoid some conflicts and embrace other, based on your natural conflict style – not based on what is best for your business. Artificial harmony created by conflict avoidance is treacherous, as this HBR article points out:

  • Resentments among leaders emerge.
  • Difficult (yet necessary) decisions are avoided or regularly postponed.
  • Innovation is stifled, when individuals are afraid to share ideas that might rock the boat.
  • Back-channel conversations are very active.

Healthy conflicts on the other hand are invaluable as they:

  • Enable better decisions, by putting all information and opinions on the table (even what people feel uncomfortable sharing).
  • Increase trust and strengthen relationships among your leadership team – as they experience that they can safely recover from conflicts.

How can you mine more healthy conflicts?

First identify your comfort zone and your natural conflict style based on the matrix below.

This is a slightly modified version  of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Model, which identifies 5 natural conflict styles based on 2 questions:

  • How important is the relationship to you (horizontal axis)?
  • How important is reaching the goal to you (vertical axis)?

Each of these styles has benefits and disadvantages. Which of these is your natural conflict style? How about your senior leaders?

  • Competing:
    • “I win, you lose. I value my goal more than our relationship. I know I am right.”
    • Benefit: appropriate when making unpopular decisions (eg budget cuts) or in crises.
    • Cost: strains relationships and reduces engagement.
  • Collaborating:
    • “I win, you win. If we work together we can come up with a better answer than either of us individually.”
    • Benefit: Leads to high quality decisions that strengthen relationships.
    • Cost: takes time and energy – not appropriate for small decisions.
  • Compromising:
    • “We could both live with that. If I give you this, you could give me that. This isn’t important enough to fight over.”
    • Benefit: speed (meeting halfway).
    • Cost: suboptimal decision (not appropriate for important matters).
  • Avoiding:
    • “I lose, you lose. This is not such a big deal; I’d rather forget about it.”
    • Benefit: reduces stress (in the short term) and sets up favorable conditions for what comes next.
    • Cost: creates resentment and delays, and degrades decisions.
  • Accommodating:
    • “I lose, you win. I value our relationship more than the point being made. This tension is very uncomfortable. I’ll just do what you want.”
    • Benefit: quick ending that restores harmony (in the short term).
    • Cost: Loss of respect and motivation.

Different situations require different conflict styles. By tapping into your team members’ natural conflict styles, you can make your team more effective at conflict management and decision-making. Here is an example:

I like using the Collaborating conflict style, taking my time to understand my and the other person’s points of view to get to the best decision. My team’s feedback though, is that this takes way too much time when we discuss minor points.

I have now learned to identify these situations. I delegate these decisions or try to mimic the conflict style of a more assertive team member. It still makes me uncomfortable at times, but it makes us much more effective as a leadership team.

Practically speaking: what can you start doing today?

  • Identify your own natural conflict style (the one you use more than the other ones).
  • Find your team members’ natural conflict styles (or, better, discuss it as a team).
  • List 2 or 3 recurring situations where your natural conflict style is not optimal – and define who on your team should take the lead on managing these conversations.

Healthy conflicts make your leadership team more effective, improves the quality of your decisions, and will ultimately help you grow faster. Identifying your natural conflict style will help you get outside of your comfort zone – so that you can mine more healthy conflicts.

You can access the original article and its sources here: How to turn conflicts into your growth engine – Ambrose Growth | Business Coaching

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Updated: Jun 12, 2024

About the author
Xavier Lederer of Ambrose Growth is a member of XPX Hartford

Call me when your client is frustrated because their business is not growing as fast as they want. As a business coach I help companies identify and remove growth roadblocks so they can grow faster and with less pain.