Don’t Smooth Things Over

Courageous leaders don’t smooth things over. They don’t put band-aids on the symptoms of a problem. They don’t pretend “things” are okay when they know darn well they are not and they never ever expect that a problem will just fix itself. 


What courageous leaders do is make things right, even if sometimes that means plunging headfirst into conflict. 


There are and have been many a great leader who preferred to avoid conflict when possible but I can’t think of a single truly great leader from the past or present who avoids conflict at all costs. 


The most effective leaders know that “smoothing over” a problem isn’t much different than burying it under a rock. Sooner or later someone comes along and turns the rock over exposing the problem with all it’s rough edges on display once again. 


Weaker leaders avoid conflicts because to them conflict means emotionally charged turmoil and fights and disruption and drama. In the hands of a weak leader that’s probably true.


Under the guidance of an Authentic Leader, especially an Authentic Servant Leader, a conflict represents the opportunity for genuine learning and long-term growth. 


Authentic Servant Leaders meet conflict head-on with the compassion, integrity, and understanding that you would expect from such a leader. They know that the only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it so they work diligently to lower relationship tension and the emotions that go with it. 


They lead the discussion with whatever facts are irrefutable to build common ground. They show empathy for every side of a conflict without minimizing the importance of anyone’s feelings. 


They want everyone involved in the situation to come out of it with their self-esteem and the conflict gone. 


When that works it’s a great accomplishment. But the truth is it doesn’t always work. 


When it doesn’t work the Authentic Servant Leader sets aside the Authentic Servant part and simply leads. If forced, they impose a solution that ends the conflict. They decide! They take action! That may mean some really bad stuff happens to someone involved in the conflict but the conflict is resolved and it’s resolved for good. 


Authentic Servant Leaders do not allow conflict to linger. Conflicts are like an organizational cancer. Leaders should help diagnose and treat the conflict but if it can’t be treated it must be removed. That will likely result in some injured feelings. Authentic Servant Leaders understand that at least a part of their organization may require some time to heal from an imposed solution. They also know that needing a little time to heal is far better than dealing with a slow burning conflict that never ends.


I firmly believe in helping everyone in an organization feel valuable and in continually building their self-esteem. But in every case, in every single case, the good of the many must outweigh the good of the one. 

Dealing with conflict is one of the biggest challenges for a true leader but it’s one they don’t run from, in fact, the very best leaders run to it. 

Compassionate Conflict Resolution

You can meditate 4000 years, but if avoidance is at the root of it, you won’t be free. ~ Papaji

People often ask me where my ideas for blog topics come from. I tell them that I just write about “stuff” I read, see in the news, and hear and see around me. Sometimes however a blog post is just me talking to myself and letting other people “listen” in… this is one of those blog posts. 

I do not like conflict! I am not however a conflict avoider. That pretty much puts me where I need to be to successfully deal with workplace and life conflict. I’d rather not deal with conflicts but I will if I have to and knowing what I know about Authentic Leadership if I intend to audaciously continue to attempt to help others improve their own leadership skills I most certainly have to. 

I have to because conflict engagement and resolution are key leadership skills. Leaders who avoid conflict at any cost simply don’t understand that the costs are very real. 

By the way, just an aside here… if you’re thinking to yourself right now that you actually like conflict then I have some bad news for you. Liking conflict almost always means that you aren’t very good at resolving it. 

Avoiding conflict often causes resentment and misunderstanding, – emotions that when left alone, have a tendency to fester. Nothing is heard the way the conflict avoider intends it to be heard. The conflict avoider says one thing but the other person doesn’t understand the emotions it was said with so they hear something else. That leads to distrust. An environment of distrust frequently influences turnover and productivity which then negatively impact profitability. The issues that cause conflicts rarely go away or solve themselves. They usually just get bigger, and bigger, and bigger. They also get more and more expensive.

People being people means there will always be a need for conflict resolution. Conflict comes from differences of opinions, ideas, and perceptions that are exchanged every day. Every Day! That’s a whole lot of opportunity for conflicts to arise. 

So, you’ll either learn to deal with conflict in a constructive way or you will fail as a leader. It’s just that simple.

When handled correctly conflicts actually strengthen an organization. The communication and trust that comes from effective conflict resolution builds trusting relationships between a leader and their people. 

It’s the handling correctly part that causes so many people to avoid conflict. They just don’t know where to begin. 

A great place to begin is with the other person’s interests. Why do they think the way they think? What are their motives? What are their objectives? Put yourself in their shoes and if you do it sincerely you’ll have a much better understanding of their emotions and it’s that understanding that will help you control your own emotions.

Look for solutions, not more conflict. Never forget that even complex problems can have a relatively simple solution when emotions are set aside. Simple doesn’t mean easy but at least simple is doable. 

When dealing with conflict I need to keep three principles from Dale Carnegie’s great book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” in mind.

The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it. If a leader allows an attempt at conflict resolution to turn into an argument then the leader has messed up. They need to reconvene the attempt when emotions have settled down a bit.

Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to. Most people will strive to meet the expectations of others. If you go into an attempt at conflict resolution looking for a fight then you are likely to get one. If you are expecting the other person to also seek a positive resolution then they very likely will.

Use encouragement. Make the fault seem easy to correct. Never make a problem bigger than it is. As a leader if you’re trying to influence someone out of a bad idea or a poor practice then make the mistake or idea seem easy to fix. Share examples of your own past mistakes and how your changed your thinking to change the outcome. Encourage them to do the same.

Always show compassion for the other person’s feelings, thoughts and ideas. They may appear totally wrong to you but to the other person they are absolutely right.

If you’re in a leadership position and you practice conflict avoidance then you may have the position but you’re not leading. The next time you have the opportunity to resolve conflict look at it as an opportunity for growth. Work to resolve the issue in a way that demonstrates respect, value, and security for every person involved. 

Conflict doesn’t have to cost, it can be a tremendous opportunity to grow your people while growing your own leadership skills. All it takes it a decision to try.

The Vital Importance of Conflict Resolution

I am not a fan of conflict. I’d prefer to have zero conflicts in my life, both my personal life and my professional life.

My preference however is unrealistic because conflicts are a part of life. They happen! As a matter of fact, if you have a pulse and interact with other human beings then you will have conflicts too.

Some people will go to extreme lengths to avoid conflict. I think they avoid them because they believe all conflicts lead to poor outcomes. They have so little confidence in their own communication skills that they fear losing control of their emotions and making the situation that originally caused the conflict even worse.

That’s a challenging way to go through life for anyone. If you have that challenge and you’re in a leadership position then it’s far more than a challenge, it can be a disaster.

Unresolved conflict leads directly to unreached potential. Let me repeat that in case you missed it… unresolved conflict leads directly to unreached potential. Directly!

If you’re a leader who avoids conflict then you’re a limited leader at best. You can make great decisions, hire the right people, build solid products, and be liked by everyone. What you can’t do is lead your people and your organization to their full potential.

It’s like seeing $40 on the ground and bending down to pick up $20, hoping that somebody else will pick up the other $20 and put it to use. You just left half of your potential “find” lay there. Hope may sound nice in a speech but I’m sorry to say, it’s a real crappy business strategy.

Leaders cannot simply hope the conflict resolves itself. Conflicts seldom disappear, they just simmer below the surface causing havoc in your organization. If you don’t care enough about your people to proactively, compassionately resolve conflicts then you likely don’t care enough to truly lead.

Conflict resolution is a vital skill that leaders need to learn.

If you view conflict as dangerous, it tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you go into a conflict situation already feeling threatened, it’s tough to deal with the issue in a healthy and productive way. Instead, you are more likely to shut down or blow up in anger.

Conflict elicits strong emotions and often leads to hurt feelings and disappointment. When handled in an unhealthy manner, it can cause irreparable harm, resentments, and long-lasting distrust. When conflict is resolved in a healthy and productive way, it increases your understanding of the other person, builds trust, and strengthens relationships. This is true in both your personal and professional lives.

Effective leaders possess the capacity to recognize and respond to the things that matter to the other person. They respond in a calm, non-defensive, and respectful manner. The are ready to forgive and forget if necessary and they are able to move past the conflict without holding on to resentment. Effective leaders know that compromise is not a dirty word and that while accountability may play a role in conflict management, punishing does not.

Authentic servant leaders hold the belief that facing conflict head on is the best thing for both sides. When dealing with conflict they care enough to listen with more than just their ears. They “tune-in” to the other person to completely understand what they are saying and why they are saying it.

When people are upset, the words they use often don’t convey the real issues at the heart of the conflict. When you listen for what is felt—as well as what is said—you have the opportunity to truly understand where the other person is coming from.
When you’re in the middle of a conflict, paying close attention to the other person’s nonverbal signals may help you figure out what the other person is really saying, This lets you to respond in a way that builds trust, and get to the heart of the problem. A calm tone of voice or an interested facial expression can go a long way towards relaxing a tense exchange.

Here are a few more points to consider before attempting to resolve a conflict:

Think resolution rather than winning or “being right.” Remember, if you win then somebody else loses. If somebody feels like they have been defeated then they may withdraw for a while but the conflict still exists.

Focus on the now. If you’re holding on to grudges based on past resentments, your ability to see the reality of the current situation will be impaired. Resolve the current conflict, don’t rehash old ones.

Let something go. If you can’t come to an agreement, agree to disagree. It takes two people to keep an argument going. If a conflict is going nowhere, it is okay to disengage and move on.

I firmly believe the worst thing you can do when it comes to conflict management or hopefully, conflict resolution, is nothing. If you actually intend to lead then you must face this challenge head-on, in a caring and thoughtful way.

It’s how Authentic Servant Leaders deal with conflict!