The world is embroiled in conflict as the pandemic continues unabated. Across the world, within countries, and even neighborhoods, families, and age groups, there is no consensus on the best approach to navigating the pandemic – conflict is at an all-time high. This epic challenge is not surprising given the severe conflict between the paths forward:
- saving lives and protecting the healthcare system from overwhelm
- supporting jobs, schooling, and the economy
Pandemic-driven conflicts are amplified by the forces of globalization which have dramatically increased racial, cultural, and political diversity. This accelerating diversity impacts everyone at personal, social, and organizational levels because we all have the tendency to split our worlds into “us and them.” We tend to treat members of our own in-group with empathy and kindness while not extending the same treatment toward out-groups. These tendencies are pronounced when we feel stressed, threatened, or anxious about our own security or survival, as is the case now.
As coaches, we can be of much service to our coaching clients (in leadership and health and wellness) and, consequently, to society during these pandemic times. We can help our clients step back and view conflict as a call to grow, as an adaptive challenge. It is an opportunity for fostering behaviors such as humility and empathy and encouraging adaptive self-leadership and leadership. We are called to move collaboratively toward the best possible outcomes for everyone.
Conflict communication experts Oetzel and Ting-Toomy define intercultural conflict: “as the experience of emotional frustration in conjunction with perceived incompatibility of values, norms, goals, scarce resources, processes and/or outcomes between a minimum of two parties from two different cultural communities in an interactive situation.” In addition to the negative consequences, conflict provides opportunities for personal growth, relational development, and resolving problems (Oetzel & Ting-Toomey, 2013).
A widely used conflict resolution framework is the Thomas Kilmann Instrument. It measures a person’s conflict behaviors along two dimensions, assertiveness and cooperativeness, resulting in 5 potential conflict behaviors: 1) avoidance, 2) competition, 3) compromise, 4) accommodation, and at our human best, 5) collaboration.
While there are instances where each of the five conflict behaviors are justifiable, extraordinarily complex times bring accelerating non-linear change (Cavanagh, 2013) which accelerates polarities and conflicts. These times then call for accelerating collaboration.
Servant leadership and conflict
This dose features a study in India on servant leadership and conflict resolution (Jit, Shekar Sharma and Kawatra, 2016) as a helpful resource for coaches. Like coaches, servant leaders see themselves as stewards of their followers and organizations who seek to grow the resources that have been entrusted to them.
The researchers used a qualitative method of narrative inquiry to discover the values and perspectives that servant leaders use to navigate conflicts with and among followers. The researchers identified servant leaders from conducting 8-10, in-depth interviews, with a leader’s past and present subordinates and colleagues, using the Executive Servant Leader scale (measuring interpersonal support, building community, altruism, egalitarianism, and moral integrity). They then conducted semi-structured, in-person interviews over six months with 15 selected and available servant leaders (ten men and five women aged 45-65) working in education, corporate, and government sectors.
The study findings for resolving follower conflicts include:
1. Gain empathic understanding of the factors driving the conflict
The leaders start by active or empathic listening and discussion with the conflicting parties separately to gather and understand facts and aspirations.
2. Facilitate an amicable solution
Next, the leaders facilitate a discussion with the conflicting parties with the intention of helping both parties to see the “positives” of each viewpoint, and to offer solutions that meet their aspirations and impart a sense of ownership.
3. Play an impartial/objective role
The leaders aim to be objective and fair, without siding with either party. This is particularly important if the parties are unable to resolve the issue. Then as a last stage, the leader uses his/her authority as an arbitrator to implement a solution with the intention of improving harmony and cohesion.
The main finding for resolving leader-follower conflicts when a leader faces provocative behavior from a follower:
Cool-off time followed by composure and understanding
The servant leaders provide a cool-off time for the follower’s emotions to de-escalate. This is followed by a deep listening session to understand the follower’s mindset. The leaders respond with a more restrained, composed, considerate, and humble approach and show a readiness to learn from the situation. This contrasts with common reactions of transactional leaders (e.g. punishment, retaliation, withholding rewards). The servant leaders turned insubordination into understanding and a lasting relationship of positivity.
The researchers conclude: “The conflict–resolution approach of our respondents manifests a leadership style that is cooperative and supportive, compassionate and benevolent, relational and persuasive in nature. It is proposed that such leadership orientation has the potential to give rise to a culture of civility and collaboration, cohesion and commitment and compassion and forgiveness."
Takeaways for Coaches
This humane approach to conflict by servant leaders is an inspiration to coaches and leaders alike. Coaches can take the following actions to heart:
- Accept that conflict is inevitable and understandably heightened during this time of severely conflicting interests across countries, regions, economies, and individual stages of life.
- Take time to cool off, to de-escalate high emotions, so that you or your client can approach conflict resolution in a calm, composed, and humble state.
- Lead self and encourage clients to engage in a collaborative mindset – using empathic listening to appreciate and understand the factors driving the conflict, explore aspirations for conflict resolution, and evoke possible solutions that encourage a sense of ownership.