How Leaders Can Find A Way Through Conflict

By Heather Campbell

Covid caught up with me this week and I was pretty wiped out for three or four days. This is my second run-in with it – first time in August 2020. But enough of my moans. I hope all is well with you and yours.

In the depth of my self-pity, I was drawn to a magazine article entitled ‘Beautiful Mess Called Life’. Remember those first three words – they add a quirky angle to just about anything. ‘Beautiful mess called business’,’ Beautiful mess called leading people’ and, even, ‘Beautiful mess called my boss” 😉.

More seriously, I love these words because, to me, they encourage us to get comfortable with the mess that is inherent in life and leadership. I’m sure, like me, you’ve read many books that set out the formula to make life, leadership and business neat, tidy and controlled. We’re always looking for that one killer solution that will lead to everything flowing neatly and controllably from this point forward.

Instead, the reality is that we are caught up in a beautiful mess most of the time. It takes confidence, courage and resilience to continually work through that mess; to keep making sense of it and get good outcomes despite it.

Let me share an example of what I mean. This morning I was coaching the Chief Operating Officer in a large organisation. One of the themes we explored was how he could get an Executive colleague to play his part in delivering elements of a significant project the COO is leading.

‘He’s just putting up barriers and his team as are bad. They don’t show up to meetings. They don’t deliver to the targets being set. The person they’ve put in charge is too junior and doesn’t have the authority.’

‘What reasons do they give for doing this?’

‘That they’re too busy. They don’t have time. That we’re being difficult. But this is one of the most important projects in the organisation. They can’t just keep making excuses.’

It’s one of many complex issues this COO is facing and he needs it fixed. As a result, he’s putting pressure on his colleague but his colleague’s pushing back just as hard. Demanding on the one side and refusing on the other can only lead to resentment, frustration and conflict.

The COO and his team are working with a beautiful mess; his senior colleague and his team are working with a beautiful mess too. Within these mutually beautiful messes, there is a solution that can only be found if both parties allow themselves to understand each other’s mess, rather than seeking to blame or defend.

This takes maturity. It takes a genuine desire to understand rather than judge.

One of the privileges of being a coach is that I often get to listen to the various beautiful messes that a group of peers are experiencing. I also get to hear about the conflict that is arising because each leader thinks their beautiful mess is the most important and that everyone else is unreasonably contributing to it. The start point to resolving this situation is always to understand what is happening for others involved. It’s over 30 years since Stephen Covey advised us to ‘First seek to understand, then to be understood.’ In my view, this remains one of the most powerful pieces of advice any leader can follow.

To build on this, here are three steps that help to begin the sharing, and ultimately unravelling, of all these beautiful messes so that a resolution can be found.

  • What’s really getting in the way for you?
  • Here’s what’s really getting in the way for me.
  • Now that we’ve shared our beautiful messes, how can we help each other to find a beautiful way through?

And whatever beautiful mess you’re facing today, always remember, observe yourself and others with learning and understanding, not with criticism and judgement.

P.S. Here’s a link to the article if you’d like to check it out for yourself:

Other People Don’t Think You’re A Mess – Scientific American

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