Leaders need to learn during conflict and encourage opposition
based on fact and analysis. The ones who do will be successful
Howard, I think you need to leave.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was working with a small team to plan
a shareholders meeting in New York City. Earnings were down.
Expansive and expensive changes were under way; it was too soon to
show the results of these changes, and there wasnt agreement about
some future changes. The stock could free-fall if the message to
Wall Street was not on point, and Starbucks could be taken over.
The CFO abruptly resigned. The challenge of presenting an
optimistic, yet realistic, story was amplified by the short
As the Starbucks executives practiced their presentations on stage
in New York, Schultz thought he sensed insecurity and began to
doubt their effectiveness. He interrupted their presentations,
redirected them, and caused the lack of confidence that he
perceived. Patience was wearing thin. The other executives felt
threatened and micromanaged. Thats when someone said, Howard, I
think you need to leave.
Leaders in the midst of conflict make decisions with the head and
heart, with intellect and emotion. These conflicts involve elements
of opposition: the different possible futures for an organization,
the different tactics related to a shared strategy, or vastly
different strategies. In this article the term opposition is used
to describe contrasting or contradictory ideas, and the term
conflict is used to describe situations where people experience it
at a deeply personal level.
Schultzs input was intended to encourage and support the executives
who were dealing with the business problem (the opposition), but he
caused conflict by the obtrusive manner of his input. He did not
offer a discussion about the presentations that might have produced
better ideas. Instead, he threatened their self-esteem and
confidence. The executives reminded Schultz that they knew what
they needed to do, that they shared a vision for the
presentationand Schultz left.
Opposition versus conflict
Leaders who encourage opposition based on experience, facts, and
analysis are able to more fully consider the issue at hand and
generally get better results. According to research, the most
successful leaders address 60 percent more opposition than their
peers. In many ways, a leaders job is to encourage opposition by
creating conditions where productive debate can flourish and the
best decisions can be made.
The productiveness of this dialogue, however, is at risk when
people take things personally and experience conflict. Many people
avoid opposition because they fear it will turn into conflict. But
avoiding opposition can actually create issues, and when ignored,
can get bigger and become more frustrating, which creates conflict.
The experience of conflict short-circuits debate and dialogue.
People may try to avoid the unpleasantness of conflict, saying that
they agree with the leader and then act differently or
half-heartedly. They may become aggressive and challenging,
competing for power or influence. Or they may pull back and analyze
the situation, try to wait it out, or distance themselves from the
Whatever the response in conflict, people tend to manage the
potentially productive elements of opposition less
skillfullyleading to poor results for the organization. Survey
after survey shows that the main reason people leave their
organization is because of a bad relationship with their boss. The
costs of this turnover may exceed 200 percent of the departing
employees annual salary. Turnover, however, is not the whole story.
Poor strategic decisions, lackluster implementation, and missed
opportunities resulting from conflict can be more costly than
Leaders in the heat of conflict often fail because they, with good
intentions, use strategies that are meant to deal with opposition.
Conflict is a personal experience; its about the relationship, the
emotion, responding to something that could potentially threaten a
persons self-worth. Schultz was experiencing doubt and he sought to
resolve it by micromanaging the team during rehearsal. This caused
conflict in them because they could all see that Schultz was
damaging their preparation to address the business challenge. They
refocused Schultz on their shared vision and after Schultzs
departure they refocused the meeting. Schultz learned that he was
getting in the way of the very thing he cared about.
Learning from conflict
Leaders need to learn from conflict. People experience conflict
only about things that are important to them; therefore, conflict
can serve to uncover peoples values. The experience of conflict
shows us that something important (to ourselves or others) is not
being valued or respected. This opens windows of learning in the
relationship and the organization. For learning and development
professionals, the burning question is: How can we teach leaders to
learn during conflict?
First, and possibly most important, is to clearly distinguish
conflict from opposition. While many people are conflict-averse,
there is no reason to be opposition-averse. We know,
intellectually, that the clash of opposing ideas can spark
creativity and innovation, that it tests ideas against each other
and leads to better decisions. When we mistakenly call opposition
conflict, we project all the emotion and experience of a
potentially threatening situation onto one that has the potential
for great productivity. This may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy
because the opposition does, in fact, turn into conflict when we
treat it as such.
There also are deeper, and subtler, sources of conflict. Much has
been written about conflict between different generations in the
workplace. As the developed world continues its transition from an
industrial mode of production to a knowledge and service economy,
the social character shifts from bureaucratic to interactive.
Generational differences can be more fully understood as waves on
top of the changing tide of social character. Social character, a
concept introduced by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, is the shared
values and attitudes of people in a culture. The faster the culture
changes, the more potential there is for conflict related to value
differences between people in the workplace. We are in a period of
social character transition, and social character changes more
slowly than culture.
Leaders in the heat of conflict need to be able to identify and
manage the emotions and motives of conflict. When we teach leaders
to take the emotion out
of conflict, or separate the people from the problem, we misapply
opposition-management techniques to conflict. Conflict is about the
emotions and the people. We need to teach leaders to address these
issues before applying their negotiation or problem-solving
skillsor we run the risk of solving the wrong problem and
alienating the people involved.
Different approaches to conflict
The experience of conflict is different for each of us, but there
are some common themes. According to Elias Porters Relationship
Awareness Theory, conflict is characterized by three progressively
serious stages that are internally experienced. The observable
behaviors connected with these internal experiences appear as
accommodation, assertiveness, and analysisand different people may
experience these in different orders. When leaders, through
exploration of their own conflict sequences, learn that they
experience all three stages, they also learn to perceive different
conflict experiences in others.
People who accommodate in conflict generally do so because they
want to maintain harmony. They hope that others will notice the
problem and address it. They do not want to make the problem worse
by expressing their own view, and may at times deny that there is a
problem. A calm, respectful approach is most effective when people
experience conflict in this manner. A leader who can affirm the
relationship, listen carefully, and craft questions that will allow
the person in conflict to express himself will be more likely to
resolve the interpersonal conflictand more able to engage in
productive dialogue about opposing ideas.
People who assert themselves in conflict generally want to rise to
the challenge, to take quick action. They are passionate about the
issue and want others to act with the same urgency. They do not
want to let the problem get worse by ignoring it, so they confront
the issue directly. A direct, open, and timely approach is most
effective when people experience conflict in this manner. A leader
who can be confident, prepared for a robust exchange of ideas, and
focused on action will be more likely to resolve the interpersonal
conflictand more able to engage in productive dialogue about
People who analyze in conflict generally want order and logic to
prevail; they want rationality and objectivity. They want time,
space, and information. They do not want to make the problem worse
by taking impetuous action, so they ask questions, challenge
assumptions, and seek to separate opinion from fact. An objective,
open, and rational approach is most effective when people
experience conflict in this manner. A leader who can set opinions
and preconceived ideas aside, respect another persons need for
processing time, address ideas in a logical order, and focus on
getting things right will be more likely to resolve the
interpersonal conflictand more able to engage in productive
dialogue about opposing ideas.
Leadership philosophy and change
In the heat of conflict, it can be difficult to address opposing
issues neutrally because conflict, by its nature, is subjective.
Thats where a clear philosophy can add value to a leaders strategic
decisions during conflict. A written philosophy not only guides a
leader, but when shared with collaborators, invites open dialogue
about whether a leader is acting in accordance with the philosophy.
When leaders have clearly expressed the purpose of the organization
and the practical values that are essential to accomplishing that
purpose, they provide a set of principles to guide themselves and
their collaboratorsnot just when things are going well for the
organization, but also at times of change and crisis.
Leaders may not always act in ways that are consistent with their
philosophy. But leaders with a clear philosophy, like Schultz,
generally will be more responsive to followers who call him out for
behaving in ways that are not consistent with the philosophy, or in
ways that cause conflict for followers such as in the meeting
The practical values expressed in Starbuckss philosophy include the
phrase we always treat each other with respect and dignity and we
hold each other to that standard. When Schultz interrupted and
redirected the rehearsal, the other team members reminded him of
his philosophy and Schultz left them alone.
The meeting (held in late 2008 and reflected upon in Schultzs 2011
book Onward) was ultimately successful and marked a turning point
for Schultz and Starbucks. In reflection, Schultz said that people
were telling him things he already believed; he just needed to hear
Leaders lead change, and change usually involves opposing
strategies, ideas, and opinions. The foundation of an organization
may be challenged, and with it the daily activities and the source
of income for employees. These changes hold the potential for
To succeed at leading complex changes, leaders must think
systemically, not just about the organization and its context, but
also about the organizations social system, the human values and
drives that are expressed through work. Leaders with a clear
philosophy are likely to spend more time working with opposition
and the productive outcomes that can be achieved through it. Those
who have not clearly defined their philosophy are more likely to
lose their way and find themselves mired in the interpersonal
conflict that often accompanies opposition.
The secret to successful leadership of conflict is to recognize
that managing conflict is not just an intellectual exercise. As
current neuroscience research (such as that done by Antonio
Damasio) has shown, people are unable to reason effectively when
the reasoning center of the brain is detached from their emotional
center. We must not, in fact cannot, take the emotion out of
conflict. Managing conflict engages both head and heart.
Note: This article is drawn from the book Onward.