What Effective Leaders Know About Handling Conflict

We live in a day of irony. When I look at our society, I see more conflict today than we’ve had in the past—politics, gender equality, racial equality, immigration, you name it. At the same time, it feels like we don’t know how to handle conflict in a productive manner.

Want a fresh illustration?

It appears that “ghosting” has made its way into the workplace. If you work with students, you know what “ghosting” is. It’s when people are sending text messages to each other, and suddenly, one person just stops showing up for the conversation. They stop talking. They just disappear, like a ghost. Forget manners that require us to at least say, “farewell.” People (usually young people) stop liking the person, but they don’t know how to express their sentiments in a civil way—so they just go away.

According to Chip Cutter, on LinkedIn, ghosting now occurs in a variety of contexts in the workplace. And it requires no portable device. Job candidates just bail on interviews, or they accept a position, only to fail to appear for their first day on the job. Some employees are even quitting by walking out and saying nothing. They just disappear . . . like a ghost.

Why Is This Happening?

According to Cutter, there are three big reasons for such behavior:

1. They have no training or professional experience.

2. There are so many options out there, it causes them confusion.

3. The desire to avoid any conflict.

Let’s be honest. While all three reasons are true, number three trumps the others. In general, people often don’t handle conflict well. We run from it. Perhaps we’ve never been good at it, but at least in the past our common courtesies kept us civil. Today, some may not even possess those common courtesies anymore. So how do leaders model good conflict resolution in such a day, especially when students have never seen a good example?

Let me suggest one big idea.

Leadership Is Pretty Much About Managing Expectations

Quality leaders recognize that life is pretty much about managing expectations— their own expectations and those of others. People can handle significant challenges—as long as they align with their expectations. Any time hardship fails to align with expectations, however, we can expect trouble.

My friend, Sam Chand, puts it this way.

“Conflict is caused by the distance between expectations and reality. When the distance is significant, people clash. Let me illustrate this: When a husband walks out the door and is asked by his wife, ‘What time will you be home?’, whatever he answers will create an expectation. If he gives her a time, like 7:00 o’clock, he has created a specific expectation. If he shows up at 7:30, the reality is a significant distance from her expectation, and she’s upset. If he comes through the door at 9:00, the distance is even farther, and she’s hopping mad! If he looks at his watch on the way home and it’s after 10:00, he should probably sleep in the car that night. In all cases, the distance between expectation and reality determines the level of conflict.”

My guess is—if you’re experiencing tangible conflict with someone, it can likely be traced back to the distance between the reality and each other’s expectations.

Wise leaders always labor to reduce unmet expectations. As they interact with their team, their students or their families, their goal is clarity and understanding. They know it’s better to have a hard conversation now than to experience festering anger later—due to differences in expectations. Leaders push for three outcomes:

1. Clarity

2. Simplicity

3. Mutual benefit

When we lack any of those ingredients, it’s a recipe for conflict. Why? Expectations may differ. Sam Chand concludes, “The expectation is the what of the conflict. It helps us be objective and calm, so we can have a productive discussion.”

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What Effective Leaders Know About Handling Conflict