Conflict as the new currency of transformational leadership: harnessing disagreements for growth


Interview with Vanessa Fudge, CEO and Founder of Leading Well 

Enlighten us on how conflict has been part of leadership conversations since recent global events. 

Since recent global events, leaders are becoming increasingly aware that they need to lean into conflict. It does not suffice anymore to avoid conflict or even try to work around it. It’s becoming increasingly common that some fundamentals that we might have dismissed as no longer necessary for senior executive leaders are featuring prominently again. These practices encompass essential elements such as feedback, goal setting, and coaching conversations. We are seeing this throughout the government and private sectors where organisations are actively engaging us to equip leaders in reacquiring these skills that somehow seemed to have become lost during the pandemic. 


Can you provide a snapshot into the different types of conflict a business can experience. 

The biggest mistake leaders make is to simplify conflict when it is remarkably complex.  

Personal conflict 

Firstly, conflict is most often experienced and interpreted in a personal way.  

“So-and-so just doesn’t get it. They’ve always had an issue with them. This person doesn’t like me.”  

Most leaders have a nemesis. They’re lucky if it’s just one, but it’s somebody who rubs them up the wrong way which can escalate into complex forms of conflict. Our recommendation, as a core leadership skill, is to always lean into conflict and not back out of it in avoidance, which inevitably leads to escalation.  

With personal conflict, it’s normally two people who have a clash. They’ll say their values aren’t aligned, but it might be their communication style, or someone is triggering the memory of somebody else, typically called a projection. In coaching, we have sophisticated processes to remove that projection and help people stand aside to look at the person clearly again. 

It’s important that coaches have this skill, because you really want to ensure that the person with who you’re experiencing conflict with, is not actually somebody else, from a time pased, that you are reliving in the current situation. Conflict can remain in our psyche, unresolved, looking for ways to resolve itself through current experiences.  

Some of the tools used to manage personal conflict include personality assessments and styles analysis which can be helpful to understand the person, not the content of the conflict itself. But not all conflict is personal, sometimes it sits in the system of the organisation, the ecosystem itself and this is completely different. 

When it’s organisational conflict it looks different. If you find that people get on really well outside of work but they’re really at odds in the office, it’s a sign that the conflict is sitting in the system. It’s something sitting between them. The relationship is what sits between myself and somebody else. That space is not about me, and it’s not about you. It’s about us coming together and the tensions that can be experienced in our interaction.  

There are multiple forms of conflict that can sit in the system. 

Role conflict 

Sometimes, whoever sits in a particular role can find themselves in conflict. We call this a burdened role, for example someone is sitting in an ejector seat where historically people might only last 6 months before leaving. They often get sick, and so does their successor and the next person, and the next person. There’s something inherently wrong with this role, there are tensions that exist around it, they might collect conflict from other functional areas as well. Normally this role does not have the right delegations, it is not sufficiently empowered or positioned right in the organisation or it is holding trauma from previous events. 

Patterns start to appear. This is why we recommend in conflict scenarios, don’t get mesmerised by incidents, look for patterns. When conflict is sitting in the system itself, it’s all going to manifest through patterns. The incidents will be hypnotically mesmerizing but the solution will arise from zooming out on the pattern. 

Structural conflict 

There is structural conflict as well. Sometimes, an entire operational arm of an organisation has functions within there, that used to be held somewhere else. A classic example is something like, People and culture used to report to the CEO, but now, it’s coming under the COO. 

Suddenly, People and Culture can’t do what it used to be able to do, because it had a direct line of access to the CEO. We’ve now got a structural conflict. If you look at the productivity of People and Culture in an organisation like that, it’s just gone through the floor. So what do we do?  

We hire a new Head of People and Culture, and we put them in under the COO. Because we mistakenly believe, “Oh, that persons got their nose out of joint because they no longer report to the CEO.” But guess what? The problem persists.  This could be confirmation that you have a structural conflict.  Perhaps we need to find the right home for People and Culture. Or, if it’s staying there, we need to have different expectations of it. 


Systemic conflict 

Systemic conflict is where the whole system is expressing something, through conflict, that’s been excluded from the narrative of the past. Now we come into the realms of more serious signs of conflict. We come into examples of things like royal commissions. Then you realise we’re in the domain of… “Oh my gosh, it’s not one organisational system, it’s an entire industry.”  These conflicts are quite vast, and simply rolling out the leadership team with a number on their head and blaming them for the problem is radically minimising the reality of the situation. 


Types of organisational conflict 


Tell us if you think conflict is healthy or dangerous in an organisation. 

If leaders are equipped, conflict can be always healthy. That’s a very extreme thing to say, but remember my caveat, if leaders are equipped. Because conflict is information, conflict is data. It signals that issues need attention. If we can approach conflict with curiosity, then we’ll be really well-prepared to get to the heart of the issue. There’s a magnificent conflict that every leader must get prepared for, and it’s their rebel. Not just one. Depending on the size of the organization, there’ll be many rebels there to buck the system. Rebels are there to expose unspoken belonging rules. They’re willing to speak out, even if it risks their own belonging. Don’t confuse them with underminers. You need them, because they expose the patterns in the system.  

Unfortunately, throughout an organisation, conflict places people at risk of trauma. This is why leaders need to be equipped, first and foremost, to manage their own presence in the face of conflict, and then to recognise what’s going on around them. It’s all too common in coaching that we hear a leader is completely overwhelmed by a conflict, but they’re not reacting out of the organisational system. They’re actually reacting out of their family system. Somebody’s reminding them of somebody else. So it’s vital that leaders evolve their relationship with conflict and tap into new wisdom to hold the space of being a leader, because leaders are required to be conflict holders. It’s putting safe holding around a conflict situation, to ensure that no one is unjustly blamed, and that insightful information, often illuminating, for the whole system, can safely come to light. 

If an organisation can use conflict as a currency for transformation, it will be heads and shoulders above the rest of its industry. About 99% of leaders that we coach tell us they need to significantly evolve their relationship with conflict. 


Tell me how conflict can lead to growth. 

Conflict is always an opportunity for growth. It’s important to be compassionate towards yourself. It can easily trigger… not just a stress response, not just an anxiety response, but a trauma response. Leaders are ill-equipped to deal with it, because most leadership training approaches conflict as a set of technical skills to learn, when it’s entirely relational. 


Can you give me a case study, or an example on how you have solved conflict through coaching methodologies? 

We frequently get called into relationships inside organisations that are under an enormous burden of conflict, including business partnerships. A business partnership client reached out to us because they’d heard that we had been successful in this area. We had a very successful business run by two partners that refused to genuinely communicate with each other. They were just in completely neutral corners. What we did was, we made sure that each had a different individual coach, and we also provided coaching for the relationship. This is a really important step, because people are vulnerable, particularly if they’re triggered, from their past, in a conflict situation. 

This was highly successful for each of them, to reflect on their own relationship with conflict. By the time we could work with them together, it was possible to see that there were some unhelpful filters over the conflict situation. There were unresolved issues from the past. Their relationship had been through five major evolutions, from friendship, all the way through to multiple business relationships, not one, but multiple. You need to appreciate each relationship phase because each phase has a different message. Suffice to say, they’re a very healthy partnership today. Each leader brought their courage to the process and that’s what made it possible. 


What do you see happening in the next few years around conflict, and the growth mindset?  

I’m really appreciative of the work on mindset from multiple people, not just Carol Dweck, who might have first coined the phrase “Growth mindset.”, it’s a wonderful thing that it’s being taught in schools now.  

But isn’t it funny? Because emerging leaders are going to have a better sense of it, in years to come, than senior executive leaders, because they will have been schooled on it, in their formative years. We’ve got lots of leaders that haven’t. The risk, however, is to underappreciate the complexity of conflict and make it all about mindset.  Somebody could be really struggling, fully understanding the importance of a growth mindset, and yet be berating themselves for being unable to hold that growth mindset. 

They could be up against a systemic conflict and blaming it on their mindset. We need to get better at diagnosing conflict in the first place, before we can anticipate how we’ll solve it. In the future, my sense is that this will be taught differently to leaders, to the way it’s being taught today, as a leadership skill. Through a few more lessons, coming out of the pace of change, the scale of change, and the fact that leaders are not equipped yet, to deal with systemic conflict. 


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