Learning & Development

Managing the Conflict Inflection Point

Conflict is the fiber of every one of our existing relationships.  A day doesn’t pass without conflict – it’s natural.  Conflict is unavoidable but it does not have to be calamitous.  It can be internal or external – as minor as hitting the snooze on your alarm or a clash of how to resolve a client’s problem at work. Conflict comes in all shapes and sizes, but leadership response could either escalate or lessen the intensity of the problem.

At work, conflict can become consequential.  Clarification of the source of the conflict is crucial.

Do we confront a poor performer, or do we let them slide?  Should we drop a problematic but profitable client?  Do we divest from a position because of high risk or reinvest because it might yield higher returns? 

In life, personal and professional, conflict emerges from choice.  Choice leads to consequences.

The Good, Bad, and Ugly, of Conflict

Conflict is something humans tend to avoid. We shrink from it, sweeping it under the proverbial rug. Conflict implies division, animosity, alienation, and opposition.

Yet conflict is an opportunity for advancement.  It is the tension that releases ingenuity and innovation.  Societies and businesses are propelled by the conflict they face.  It marshals our forces to a unified purpose. 

So, what should a leader do?  Conflict can be toxic or intoxicating.

Conflict occurs when two forces collide. That collision is a source of energy that can be potentially harnessed.  We need to balance these opposing forces to harness this energy.  The “at stake issue” is multi-variant – it could be land, funds, or ideas – it could be option limitations (no compromise; one or another), personality/communication (differences in expression/priorities), or genuine moral disagreements.  Never approach a conflict without knowing its source. 

Yet the very idea of choosing in a conflict creates more conflict. This essence is poetically captured in Robert Frost’s iconic poem, “The Road Not Taken.” In the poem, the author comes across a split path, unable to comprehend the difference between the two. He decides to choose one with the hope of taking the other path later. However, later he discovers he cannot as “way leads on to the way.” Decisions have lasting consequences. In the end, the author is left wondering if his life would be different had he chosen the other path.  Ultimately, he is not content with his choice, tormented by the what-if scenarios of the path surrendered.  Nowadays we can solicit help from generative AI (Chat GPT) to lay out the most probable “what ifs” for us. Still, it is difficult. Frost’s poem shows us that every conflict requires a choice that ultimately determines our life.  We know this but don’t want to, because more often than not we are terrified of accountability for our decisions. Again, though, conflict simultaneously holds functional and dysfunctional values, there are cons and pros to it.

CONS – Conflict can…

  • Result in people competing even when cooperation is in their best interest
  • Result in lack of communication
  • Result in escalation
  • Result in focusing on differences as opposed to commonalities
  • Result in a waste of time, energy and talent

PROS – Conflict can…

  • Enhance performance 
  • Alert issues of concern 
  • Help to set boundaries
  • Harness Emotion

Conflict vs Performance

When looking at the level of conflict vs performance we can find optimum levels that a manager should consider to get the most out of their employees. On the distant end of the spectrum, devoid of visible contours, a state devoid of conflict prevails. No palpable tension lingers. In this barren expanse, employees exhibit boredom and apathy, disengaged from their organizational ties. Motivation and creativity elude them, resembling individuals leisurely floating along in inner tubes down a tranquil estuary. As one progresses gradually to the opposite end, a semblance of conflict emerges, akin to mild rapids. Eyes widen in response to opportunities, and professional skills come into play. Engagement and alertness manifest, aligning with the current that propels them forward. Approaching the zenith, they become fully immersed. Work becomes challenging, prompting the summoning of their best efforts, and creative solutions are conceived and implemented. They navigate in harmony with the tide or against it as necessary, fueled by hope. A hopeful individual is a motivated individual, who believes that their endeavors can yield productive outcomes. This represents the pinnacle of our capabilities, where conflict transforms into a stimulating challenge, and challenge evolves into hope, potential, and heightened performance. This juncture is commonly referred to as the inflection point, signifying a divergence toward either positive or negative trajectories.

Once the apex is surpassed, the force of conflict takes a reverse toll. It descends into anxious apprehension as individuals find themselves overwhelmed with tasks devoid of clear purpose. Inhibition takes hold as they fret about the unpredictable currents ahead. Hesitation, tentativeness, and the loss of the creative tension fostered by healthy conflict become apparent. Progressing to severe levels of conflict, the situation grows increasingly dire. Stress and dysfunction set in, reaching a nadir where conflict spirals out of control. Miscommunication and mistrust become pervasive and existentially terrified, they find themselves frozen in the same waters where they once floated, gasping for breath.

So, what can be done?

  1. Do not shrink from conflict.  Face it head-on.  See it as lemonade, not a lemon.  Conflict is an opportunity to lead.  Everyone around you sees the conflict.  If you don’t address it, you will be labeled – a coward, it is better to be admired. 
  2. Create a micro-culture of expressing conflict.  You might not be able to change your organization’s culture, but you can change your team’s culture.  Encourage them to express disagreement (respectfully, of course). Indeed, reward them for it.  People want a say. 
  3. Share your struggles with conflict. It makes you relatable. It makes you imperfect. What your team needs.  Perfection, perceived, or real, makes you less approachable. 
  4. Preach the value of conflict.  Agree to disagree. Sharing ideas and disagreeing with them is part of a healthy workplace.
  5. Help people understand why managing conflict is important, and how it’s as much their responsibility as it’s yours to manage it. 

At the end of the day, as with any leadership, to manage conflict effectively you must be a skilled communicator – especially in conflict management. Conflict management refers to the way that you handle disagreements. On any given day, you may have to deal with a dispute between you and another individual, your family members, or fellow employees.

Although there are many reasons people disagree, many conflicts revolve around personal values (real or perceived), perceptions, conflicting goals, power dynamics, and communication style; but when it comes to managing conflict most people take one of two approaches to conflict management: assertiveness or cooperativeness and this generally leads to five modes or styles of conflict management:

1. Accommodating

2. Avoiding

3. Collaborating

4. Competing

5. Compromising


Conflict is both an opportunity and a threat. Performance will vary depending on culture, industry, and environment.  That’s a judgment you have to make after a careful scan based on extensive experience. 

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Don’t expect to change the culture of the entire organization from the get-go. You can start from your team, agency, or unit.  Small shifts make a big difference.  Introduce and reduce conflict as needed.  Managing healthy conflict is a leadership skill that will get you productivity and respect

Take advantage of conflict.  Don’t let it take advantage of you. 

James R. Bailey, Monazza A. Bukhari, and Scheherazade S. Rehman are Faculty at the George Washington University School of Business.

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