The Fear of Conflict: Terminal Paralysis of Great Managers

Calling All Managers!

Interviewing at Oracle in 1994 (when it was a tiny 20,000 person company!) for my first managerial role, I remember having to climb my way up through interviews with 4 levels of management. When I finally got to the last interview with the SVP, he only asked me one question, “What’s your most important job as a manager?” Without skipping a beat, I responded with confidence “To fight for my people.” He replied immediately by saying “You are right.” I knew I got the job!

Managers get promoted into positions of leadership for various reasons depending on the business need, and it’s likely because they are hardworking, high achieving, and competent. However, being a successful manager requires much more than being the technical or functional expert. Your ability to deal with different personalities (e.g. motivating your direct reports) becomes more important than being able to do their job better than they can. Moreover, dealing with other managers and upper-level management will define how good a leader you are.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the “Best Manager” of them all…?

So on Day 1 at Oracle, I did as I said I would and started “fighting for my people” and quickly worked to understand what my team needed to be successful in terms of tools, training, and other resources. I was their #1 advocate. The problem this created for me as a new manager was the perception (which is reality in the corporate world) that I was overly aggressive and power-driven. With this “wake up call,” I needed to adjust how I dealt with people at all levels to correct this major misperception i.e. I am not a “power monger.”

Successful managers are leaders, and leaders must have a keen awareness of how their own characteristic traits influence how they deal with different people in different situations. Having that understanding about how you’re wired makes you dig much deeper than “are you a ‘type A’ or ‘type B’ personality?” Family upbringing and cultural heritage are major contributors to how you view, react and respond to adversity and conflict situations. Did your parents handle disputes by yelling or by implementing the “silent treatment?” Some cultures avoid conflict and promote “respecting superiors” no matter what. Some people avoid conflict for the simple fact that they are afraid of losing their job. For leaders, conflict avoidance is not an option.

Know Your “Conflict Mode”

Personality tests are readily available. But there is one tool known as the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) that I’ve found most useful when discussing conflict resolution. It simply measures your tendencies along 2 axes; Assertiveness (y-axis) – the degree to which you try to satisfy your ownconcerns, and Cooperativeness (x-axis) – the degree to which you try to satisfy the other person’sconcerns.

Which of the 5 TKI Conflict Modes do you find yourself in most often?

  1. Avoiding – Low Assertiveness, Low Cooperativeness
    Everyone loses here and this is clearly the worse place to be.
  2. Accommodating – Low Assertiveness, High Cooperativeness
    You lose while others get what they want.
  3. Compromising – Medium Assertiveness, Medium Cooperativeness
    This is a tricky one. On face value it seems like a good outcome but the reality is that everyone has to give up something.
  4. Competing – High Assertiveness, Low Cooperativeness
    The bulldog (you) wins, but others lose. You may feel good about it in the short run, but what impact will that have on your leadership reputation?
  5. Collaborating – High Assertiveness, High Cooperativeness
    Yes! This is the perfect win –win scenario. While it’s the preferred solution, it takes a lot of time an effort which may not be an option in some scenarios.

Knowing which mode is best to use in each particular situation requires thoughtful consideration of short term and long term impacts.

Can You Feel the Heat?
As you move up the management chain, the level of conflict (and therefore politics) increases exponentially. As I rose up the ranks to Director, I could immediately feel the increased intensity of politics and therefore conflict. And when I left Oracle for my first VP role, I was met with the harsh fact that I was a “minnow in the shark tank” from a political perspective. Not only were my peers more skilled at “the game,” but also the management culture encouraged frequent, direct conflict. Not being prepared for this, I started checking in with my CEO for every important decision I had to make. I thought I could avoid conflict by making certain that the boss was fully on-board and supportive. Before I knew it, I lost my confidence and stopped being a leader. I was paralyzed by the conflict.
How you react to conflict directly affects how you will be viewed as a leader.

Fatal Mistakes in Handling Conflict:

  1. Ostrich Syndrome – burying your head in the sand and pretending, even hoping that the conflict isn’t there or will resolve itself will take away your leadership credibility with everyone i.e. your direct reports, peers, and manager.
  2. “Human Tornado” – beware if you are more apt to be emotional. Visibly demonstrating that you are upset in a conflict situation (e.g. losing your temper, having an outburst and leaving a path of destruction) will do nothing good for you. It will only damage your reputation. Moreover, making rash decisions in the heat of the moment is a recipe for disaster. You cannot think clearly when you are being attacked and in a defensive posture.
  3. Looking for the Water Cooler –discussing your conflict with others (i.e. at the water cooler)as an outlet for stress will perpetuate office politics, causing people to take sides and worse yet, gossip. Influencing through gossip is not leadership.

Successful managers are able to rise above conflict situations and come through as stronger leaders. Some actually enjoy it. However if you’re not one of them, embracing conflict doesn’t mean you have to like it, merely that you are prepared for it and conduct yourself in manner that is consistent with your own values and how you want people to view you.

3 Key Lessons from Sustainable Leaders:

  1. Count to 10… How about 86,400 instead? - Waiting 24 hours to respond to a high conflict situation can’t hurt, it can only help. Don’t hit “send” on that flaming email response or you will regret it later. If you’re in a meeting, bite your tongue and take the action to respond later. Buying time to calm your emotions and to think through the situation logically and analytically will lead to better actions by you and favorable outcomes for everyone.
  2. “Punch a Wall” – No, not literally. I remember as teenagers we would punch walls when we were upset. Why? Well, if your hand hurts then you’ll forget why you were upset. Find a way to remove and distract yourself from the immediate conflict e.g. take a walk, go work out, meditate, or whatever you do to relax. The faster you can diffuse your emotional tension, the sooner you’ll be able to deal with the conflict in a reasonable manner.
  3. Call Your “Dr. Phil” – Yes, it’s very lonely at the top and you need to find someone who will allow you to vent and be your “voice of reason.” Calling a friend or talking to your spouse is a good first step but they are not likely to fully understand your crisis. While they can give you moral support and be a good listener, they aren’t likely able to provide you with sound business advice. Find someone you would consider a mentor or coach. Most CEOs have executive coaches to help them work through high stress situations. Having someone who understands your strengths and weaknesses, has context and continuity to your unique business dynamics, and can work with you to create viable resolution approaches (e.g. utilizing the 5 TKI Conflict Modes with you) is invaluable.

Sustainable leaders lead by example wherever they are. They weather the storms and stand through the test of time. What are your conflict survival stories and tactics?

Written by

The ExecCatalyst blog covers topics related to leadership, career advancement, hiring, finding the right job, company cultures and office politics, and general management. The authors have extensive experience in high-tech in Silicon Valley and elsewhere and have gained experience at small, fast-moving startups as well as large, global technology firms.

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