Leaders Step INTO the Fire


firefighter-24First responders are amazing people. These men and women run toward dangerous situations, while the rest of us run away. Yes, that is part of their training. However, I also believe that these courageous individuals are wired different from other people. Studies have found that when people are put in stressful or threatening situations, changes in the brain functioning occur. The more sophisticated frontal-lobe portion of the brain—which is responsible for planning, impulse control, problem solving, and organizing—shuts down. Most of the brain’s activity is registered in the amygdala, which is in a more primitive part of the brain. This triggers the “fight-or-flight” responses that are geared toward self-protection. The same type of changes in brain functions happen when a person gets angry, is insulted, or generally feels threatened. I’m sure we can all recall times where we were in environments that were not physically threatening, but a person or a situation was making us feel so uncomfortable we started having trouble thinking clearly or even communicating coherently.


“Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you’ll ever regret.” Laurence J. Peter

What does all this have to do with leading in the workplace? While most leaders are not dealing with life-threatening situations each day, we are often encountering conflict which causes stress and thus lowers productivity. In the wonderful book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, author Patrick Lencioni makes the case that constructive conflict can be beneficial in any organization. He defines constructive conflict as engaging in unfiltered and passionate debate about ideas. Too often, conflict in our places of work (and other places) is anything but constructive.

Recognizing the sources of conflict is fundamental to understanding and working through conflict. Some conflict situations are easily resolved, while others seem almost impossible. Often, the source of the conflict determines how easy it is to resolve the conflict. Here are the four main sources of conflict:

  1. Facts – People can see the same facts differently, or they can disagree on what the facts are in a situation. Conflicts over the facts are often the easiest conflicts to manage because they can be resolved by sharing information or getting reliable data.
  2. Methods – People can also disagree on how to do something. Since conflict over methods assumes a common goal, it can usually be resolved by problem solving.
  3. Goals – People can disagree over goals, where the disagreement is around what should be done. Collaboration—working together to come to an agreement on goals—can help solve these conflicts.
  4. Values – People can also disagree over values, or basic principles or beliefs. This is the most difficult kind of conflict to resolve because people identify strongly with their values. Values are deeply rooted and people resist changing them.

The sources of conflict become progressively more difficult to resolve as you move down the list from facts to values. Fortunately, knowing the source of conflict and verbalizing it can go a long way toward minimizing the conflict or resolving it altogether.

When we don’t know how to handle conflict, little troubles can become lethally toxic. People tend to display three types of toxic reactions: they brood (usually demonstrated by total withdrawal from the conversation; they blow-up (usually disproportional to the issue); they triangulate (telling their side to others to gain support), we triangulate because we lack trust in others or self-confidence in ourselves. None of these will resolve the conflict. The quickest resolution between two points of contention is always 1-to-1 conversation.  Over the years, we have all acquired preferences to how we deal with conflict. Influences likely include how we have seen other leaders deal with conflict, watching and copying other role models, even our experiences with conflict at home. There are generally five recognized ways to handle conflict:

  1. Avoid (I lose, you lose) – While leaders should not make a habit of avoiding conflict, there are times where it may be appropriate. When you are unprepared and/or when passions are too high to make the conversation productive. In these cases it might be best to deal with the conflict at another time.
  2. Accommodate (I lose, you win)This style might be appropriate with you value the relationship higher than the issue causing conflict. Be careful from using this style just to avoid conflict altogether. Leaders should be seen as cooperative, not weak.
  3. Compromise (We both win, we both lose) – True compromising involves honesty and reasonableness. This style will usually resolve the conflict quickly, but may be a challenge in the long run due to neither party feeling totally positive about the outcomes.
  4. Compete (I win, you lose) – Best used when the outcome is extremely important and the relationship is of little importance. Overused this style can have a very detrimental effect.
  5. Collaborate (I win, you win) – Both parties are trying to resolve a common problem to a mutually satisfying outcome. Each party starts by sharing information instead of concessions. Using this style takes time and an investment from both parties. While there is no “right” style, collaborating is generally seen as the most appropriate style.

In most cultures a “hero” is someone who runs into a dangerous situation without thinking about themselves. Much like the first responders mentioned earlier. A true leader is someone who steps into a conflict situation to resolve it instead of turning away. No leader will ever bat 1,000 when it comes to dealing with conflict. However, all of us can get a little better over time. Set the goal to grow your leadership skills this year. One great place to start is how you deal with conflict. Be a leader, step into the fire!

Here are a few suggested next steps to grow your conflict resolution skills:

1) Visit the HRD Press website (www.hrdpress.com) and order Dealing with Conflict Instrument. This is a great tool for identifying your preferred style and learning more about the appropriate uses of each style.

2) Read the book Crucial Confrontations by Petterson and Grenny.

3) Work with a professional coach who can partner with you in a confidential and results focused process.

4) Engage with a professional trainer and facilitator to work with you and your team. Contact me if you are interested in hosting a Conflict Resolution Skills seminar.

5) Check out my church leadership online webinars at: www.leadership4transformation.thinkific.com


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