Issue 5.1 | April 2015

In this Article: how to understand the dynamics of conflict so that you can stop the damage and enable transformation.

by Jonathan Wilson

The politician’s bodyguard and I relaxed on the winter-browned lawn under the pleasant warmth of the South African sun. But his story was chilling my heart. “I once knew a man who was a troublemaker,” he said, “a scourge in our community.”

Nonchalant, he continued his story. “One day I saw him on the bus, and I knew that now was the time. I went up to him, and I put my knife into him, and he died, right there, on the floor of the bus. It was a good thing I did, because he was a bad man.”

About us were the signs of a low-grade war: armoured vehicles, soldiers and police on patrol, surveillance helicopters overhead, a sullen and fearful populace. The bodyguard then got to his main point: “And so it will have to be with our opponent. He is the devil incarnate. There is only one way to deal with a man like that.” One year later, the opponent in question, arch-rival to the bodyguard’s boss, was gunned down outside a grocery store.

Why Conflict is Not Good

We think our boardrooms and bedroom squabbles are not like this, but all conflict is of the same essence.

  1. Conflict arises when a collision of differences becomes a collision of wills. In other words, we allow the pursuit of our beliefs to become the pursuit of getting our way — or of ensuring that others do not get their way.
  1. Our alarm at difference leads to degradation. When the differences of a person or group appear to pose a threat to what we believe is important, we degrade their status as persons. We define them as bad: if not morally bad, then bad for business.
  1. Degradation leads to division. We believe it is bad to cooperate with bad. Thus we separate and distinguish ourselves from our opponents in order to stay pure, to stay right, or to stay safe.
  1. Division increases distance. It generates two potential responses: fight, or flight. To manage the threat we might exercise some kind of force — whether verbal or social or legal tactics — or we might remove ourselves altogether from the discomfort of engaging with our opponents.
  1. With distance comes distortion. The farther apart we are, the less information we have about our opponents. To fill this vacuum we tell a story about our opponents, one that includes crime, plot and motive. Furthermore, stories are for telling, so we spread our unchecked assumptions and the resulting distortions and increase the likelihood that others too will distance themselves from our opponents.
  1. Distortions legitimize destruction. The greater the distance and the distortion, the easier it is to objectify and dehumanize, then demonize, our opponent. The wickeder we judge our opponent to be, the more legitimate it becomes to subvert them, exclude them or, even, to harm them.

Conflict is not good, as some try to claim. That is to confuse conflict with collaboration. Conflict is an opportunistic disease and it only harms. It seizes on difference, makes it oppositional, and spreads itself by channelling our creative energies into destructive behaviours. It breaks up teams, hampers creativity, undermines performance, and corrodes relationships. In one of the uglier moments in Apple’s illustrious history, Steve Jobs lost sight of the customer because of the offense he took at a competitor: “I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and … every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank … to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.”*

Thankfully, conflict has an antidote – several, in fact.

Antidotes to Conflict

The antidotes to conflict are simple. And while they do require hard work (which is why we tend to avoid them), the results are well worth the investment.

  1. De-Centralize. A key antidote is to remove ourselves from the centre of what is important to us. We can then utilize our difference of perspective in a way that serves the person or group who we believe to oppose our perspective.
  1. Validate. When opposing politicians grab a drink at the pub together after a parliamentary debate, it is because they understand that validating the person does not validate their idea. Allowing someone voice, being patient to hear their argument, and being tolerant of their disagreement are all signals that they matter as persons.
  1. Presence. When we work to stay in the same room, we counter the natural law of relational entropy that works wherever there is difference between people. While there is a place for taking a break from intense interactions, to head off or resolve conflict we have to choose the discomfort of presence over the false comfort of distance.
  1. Understanding. When we stay present we can get the insight we need to understand our opponents. To identify and clarify assumptions requires communication effort. It requires asking more than telling, and listening more than speaking.
  1. Kindness. With conflict invariably comes offense. To learn to bear with an offensive viewpoint will make it more likely that someone will do the same hard work of putting up with yours.
  1. Forgiveness. Here I must go into territory that is a little outside the normal purview of leadership writing. Invariably, conflict generates harm. There is a place for restitution where there has been harm, but there comes a point at which the harm done leaves a debt that simply cannot be paid: even the effects of a simple harsh word cannot be undone, whether by apology or by money. To forgive is the personal choice to carry someone else’s debt for them — knowing well, if we are honest, that someone somewhere has to carry ours.

If any of this seems esoteric and impractical, remember that it is exactly this hard choice that moved South Africa out of Apartheid: on his release from 27 years in prison in 1990, Nelson Mandela forgave his white oppressor, knowing that only undeserved kindness would open the door to progress.

This is conflict prevention and treatment at its most personal: and, when it happens, most transformational. The leader who develops skills at this fundamental level of human interaction is, in turn, well positioned to pursue the art of collaboration about which I’ve written elsewhere. It is these skills that enable the differences that fuel conflict to become the gifts that they are: to the individuals concerned, to the company, and most of all, to the customers.


Another leadership insight from

Leadership by Soul™, Trademark and © Jonathan Wilson, All Rights Reserved.

*As recounted in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs.

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