Conflict Engagement Leadership

Conflict is around us in all facets of our lives, and that is certainly no exception for leaders.  

Successfully navigating conflict is a skill that requires time and practice much like any other skill. For many, the very thought of engaging in conflict can be daunting at best, utterly paralyzing at worst. Leaders need to be able to embrace a level of understanding of conflict in order to be truly effective for their followers, the organizations they represent, and also for themselves.  The main concept that must continue to emerge in conflict studies the notion that the end result of conflict is not guaranteed to be resolution.  So often, people choose to enter conflict with the expectation that resolution will occur.  While resolution is often the goal, leaders must be comfortable with the possibility that resolution will not happen.  Rather, a leader should look for the potential opportunities that could transpire by choosing to engage.  The fundamental approach to conflict that must be reached in order to make conflict engagements more productive should be the idea that, “Conflict isn’t good. Conflict isn’t bad.  Conflict simply IS.”  Once this acceptance and appreciation is reached, productive and meaningful conversations within conflict can begin to take place.

A good portion of the research in the field of conflict engagement has centered on the idea that most people have a type of style or a way that they tend to approach conflict. Examples of these conflict approach matrices can be seen in the work by Rahim (1983) as well as Kilmann & Thomas (1977).  Once an individual has a better understanding of how he/she approaches conflict, understanding must be gained on the various sources that conflict emanates from. Extensive research on the sources of conflict has been conducted by scholars like Mayer (2000, 2004).  

Once these foundational principles have been grasped, then leaders are able to start to use these concepts and apply them to their leadership environments.  One primary tactic that is derived from competent conflict engagement is negotiation.  Strong negotiation abilities must be grasped by effective leaders in any environment. Negotiation training and research have been conducted by individuals like Fisher and Ury (1991).  Examples of conflict style fundamentals, conflict source research, and conflict engagement application to leadership environments can be found below:

  • Cai, D. A., & Fink, E. L. (2002).  Conflict style differences between individualists and collectivists. Communication Monographs, 69(1), 67-87.
  • Fisher, R., Ury, W. (1991).  Getting to yes: Negotiating agreement without giving in(2nded.). New York: Random House.
  • Gabrielidis, C., Stephan, W. G., Ybarra, O., Pearson, V. D. S., & Villareal, L. (1997).  Preferred styles of conflict resolution. mexico and the united states.  Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 28(6), 661-677.  
  • Gerzon, M. (2006).  Leading through conflict: How successful leaders transform differences into opportunities.  Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
  • Kilmann, R. H., & Thomas, K. W.  (1977). Developing a forced-choice measure of conflict-handling behavior: The “MODE” instrument.  Educational and Psychological Measurement, 37.
  • Lipsky, D., Seeber, R., & Fincher, R.  (2003). Emerging systems for managing workplace conflict: Lessons from American corporations for managers and dispute resolution professionals.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 
  • Mayer, B. (2004).  Beyond neutrality: Confronting the crisis in conflict resolution.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Mayer, B. (2000).  The dynamics of conflict resolution: A practitioner’s guide.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.  
  • Rahim, M. A. (1983a).  A measure of styles of handling interpersonal conflict.  Academy of Management Journal, 26(2), 368-376.
  • Rahim, M. A. (1983b).  Rahim Organizational Conflict Inventory-II, Forms A, B, & C. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.  
  • Rahim, M. A. (2001).  Managing conflict in organizations(3rded.).  Westport, CT: Quorum Books.
  • Runde, C. E., & Flanagan, T. A.  (2008). Building conflict competent teams.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
  • Simerly, R. G. (1998).  Managing conflict for productive results: A critical leadership skill.  Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 46(2), 2-11.
  • Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S.  (1999). Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most.  New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Excerpts from Dr. Aaron Peterson’s research.

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