May 05 2022| Leadership | leaders

Healthy Conflict

May Business Brief

by Kareena Hodgson Leaders Consultancy

Is there really such a thing as healthy or constructive conflict? Wanting to avoid conflict is normal - it can be difficult to deal with, time-consuming and messy, and can require significant effort, but dealing with conflict in a healthy way is an essential leadership skill. 

In Kareena’s latest Business Brief article, she discusses how, when managed well, conflict can have positive outcomes: it can be a powerful tool to build trust, it can deepen understanding within teams and between colleagues, it can be the catalyst for innovation and it can lead to personal, professional and business growth. 

If leaders are unable to manage conflict in a healthy, constructive way the workplace will quickly develop unhealthy behaviours and cultures like passive-aggressive behaviour, gossip, talking behind people’s backs and undermining behaviours - all of which can quickly lead to a toxic environment where good people leave, employee turnover is high and productivity plummets.

So how can leaders lead well through conflict?

I particularly like Brene Brown’s description of a ‘rumble’ from her book Dare to Lead:

‘A rumble is a discussion, conversation, or meeting defined by a commitment to lean into vulnerability, to stay curious and generous, to stick with the messy middle of problem identification and solving, to take a break and circle back when necessary, to be fearless in owning our parts, and, as psychologist Harriet Lerner teaches, to listen with the same passion with which we want to be heard. More than anything else, when someone says “Let’s rumble,” it cues me to show up with an open heart and mind so we can serve the work and each other, not our egos. 

Here are three points to consider when reflecting on how conflict is managed in your workplace and what influence you have as leader:

Language is important: The word ‘rumble’ is unlikely to evoke the same emotions as the word ‘conflict’, which can be a barrier in itself, especially if that is a cue for people to activate their defensive mode. What language could you use in your workplace which would begin to set an inclusive environment?

Self-awareness: Leaders should be aware of their own feelings, responses and behaviours in situations of conflict or perceived potential conflict. How you as a leader approach conflict will set the tone for the whole team and organisation. What is your emotional response to conflict? Do your emotions drive your behaviours or do you have tactics to manage your behaviours?

Creating a safe psychological environment: People will only engage with conflict if they feel safe to do so; leaders cannot expect employees to be honest and brave if they do not first create a safe space. That’s why I like the excerpt above from Brene Brown. The key points being to:

  • Set the expectation of commitment and live it.
  • Stay curious and generous - ask great questions, be prepared to be wrong, be prepared for others to have better ideas.
  • Stick with it. Don't abandon the process when it gets difficult, this will generate insecurity and low morale.
  • Take a break - don’t rush the process, especially if it’s particularly important or sensitive. Allowing space for reflection shows respect for those who may need the processing time.
  • Be accountable - own what is yours to own, avoid blame and shame at all costs.
  • Listen - perhaps the most important point, ‘listen with the same passion with which we want to be heard.’


Be brave, be courageous - dare to lead!

About The Author | Kareena Hodgson

Having achieved a degree in Community and Youth Work, Kareena built her career in the third sector. She was head of Action for Children in Guernsey for over 10 years, working with a wide range of often challenging situations. Kareena is keenly committed to fostering systems and environments that enable people to flourish. This includes substantial experience in team building and leadership, engaging with multiple stakeholders and supporting individuals in creating healthier habits in work and life. The combination of her encouraging style, people-first mindset, creative thinking, aptitude for utilising insights from psychometric surveys and passion for healthy environments is an asset for any team in any sector.

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