Leading Your Organization Through Conflict

by Andy Wood on November 18, 2011

in Five LV Laws, Insight, Life Currency, LV Cycle, Principle of Increase, Protecting Your Investment

The call or opportunity to lead is a call or opportunity for conflict.  I doubt if I’m the first to tell you that, but if so, well, sorry.  That’s certainly true on an interpersonal or team level.   It’s also true organization-wide.  Whether you’re leading a church or a business, a nonprofit or an institution, a state or a nation, the bigger they are, the harder they brawl.  Or squall.

If your goal is to avoid conflict at all costs, let somebody else take the leadership roles, because what you’re saying is that you don’t want to influence anybody.

Assuming you’re still reading, let’s assume that the idea of conflict hasn’t scared you off – at least not yet.  I have good news.  Some of the greatest demonstrations of leadership in history took place when someone rose to face the challenge of seemingly impossible conflicts.  So if your organization is facing competing values and visions, wise leadership can help make it stronger and more successful than ever.  If it’s true that conflict is the moment of truth in any relationship (and I think it is), then the way you lead your organization to face those conflicts sets the course of the organization, sometimes for years.

It’s important to remember that the people in your organization have brains, hearts, and feelings, just as you do.  Resistance to your or the organization’s direction is a way of saying you haven’t communicated the vision clearly.  Or maybe you haven’t anticipated their objections or their priorities.  Maybe you have yet to earn the trust of the people.  Or maybe they are insecure in the roles in which you are asking them to perform.

Here are five ways to work with – not against – the members of your organization to turn conflicts into jumping off points.

1.  Harness the power of shared vision.

Everybody loves vision.  Vision is exotic – romantic, in a leading kind of way.  Vision is the mind’s version of the grand adventure.  People want to be part of something bigger than they are.  Vision is where that first happens.

Just one problem.  If the leader’s vision isn’t accompanied by buy-in from constituents, then it won’t take the organization very far.  In fact, if you don’t get them to buy into your vision, then you already have a conflict, even if nobody’s admitting it yet.

I think it’s time to admit a dirty little organizational secret.  Vision is not the exclusive property of leaders alone.  Nearly everybody has an idea of how tomorrow can be better than today in your organization.  I wonder what would happen if leaders actually had a few meaningful conversations and listened to someone else’s ideas.

One of my favorite quotes of all time came from a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal back in the 80s, when Shearson-Lehman merged with American Express.  The ad read,

Vision is having an acute sense of the possible.  It is seeing what others cannot see. And when those with similar vision are drawn together, something extraordinary occurs.

It certainly does.  When in the earliest movements of an organization’s life you can get hearts and minds together on the same vision, then the only thing left to disagree on is how to fulfill the vision.

2.  Plan to avoid conflict… by planning… to have conflict.

One sure way to be undermined by conflict is to let it blow you out of the water when it happens.  Far better to plan ahead.  Make the conflict happen in the planning room rather than in the field.  Conflicts on paper or in planning sessions may cost some time; conflict in the field or the church or the community can destroy your organization.

Ask the hard questions – heck, pay somebody to ask you the hard questions that may affect your business or church 5-10 years from now.  Work out the answers between all the groups that will be affected by these potential problems.   If you don’t have some conflict – at least on paper – in a strategic planning meeting, then you aren’t planning very well.

When you plan, create a process where bad ideas can crash and burn in the planning environment rather than in the real world.  Once you identify what the organization is trying to accomplish, develop strategies for how you are going to get there with the least amount of conflict or danger for the organization.  Identify the possible danger zones, then figure out the best way to deal with these issues.  A healthy organization creates the freedom for members to voice their concerns or objections without fear of punishment or backlash.

3.  Build strong teams by putting the “right people on the right seats of the bus.”

Having the right people in the right place at the right time is very important to the leader’s and the organization’s success.  Organizational conflict may well be the result of good people in bad places in your organization.  Sometimes it’s the result of having poisonous people in the organization at all.  Then sometimes it’s just that team members aren’t functioning as a team.

Sometimes you have existing people that just need to be moved into the right area for them to excel for you or the organization.  Sometimes, as my friend Steve likes to say, it’s time to “free them to explore new opportunities elsewhere.”

Always, however, the leader’s job is to make sure teams function as teams, where everyone has his role to fill, his voice to find, and his battle to fight (motivation).  No one person has the perfect answer to anything.  The best answers usually come from engagement, listening, constructive feedback, and looking at each negotiation as a chance to help others as well as yourself come up with positive solutions.  The opposite of “team” is when a couple of people do the work and everybody else rubber-stamps their efforts and takes credit for them.  Or when team members aren’t given a real say in the functioning or development of the group.

4.  Build a high-trust culture that deals with problems and conflicts in a spirit of trust and community.

As mentioned in a previous post, this involves integrity, transparency, and accountability.

Integrity is when the leader lives by – and leads by – the values espoused by the organization.

Transparency means creating an open environment where your financial records and decisions are on display, and others can see through your organization and the decisions you make.  An open environment that people fill they can approach leaders without fear.  When your employees start whispering at the water cooler and wondering what’s next, you don’t have transparency, and you don’t have trust.

Accountability involves leaders who accept responsibility for the organization and its actions.  They publicly disclose their actions, beliefs and decisions to those they lead.  They explain what they are doing and why.

People won’t always agree with your leadership decisions.  But they will willingly follow and do their part when they know they can trust you and the organization.

5.  Fight the good fight.

Every organization has adversaries and competitors… and it’s not always who you assume it to be.  Every organization should also have causes and a vision worth fighting or standing for.  But there are effective and ineffective ways of doing that.

Do you know who your organization’s real competition is?  Who its adversaries are?  In Church World, for example, it’s a huge mistake to think of other churches as the competition.  The real adversaries are whatever interferes with the faithfulness of the people.  Usually that has something to do with entertainment or recreation.  Southwest Airlines may advertise their free baggage handling as a poke at other air carriers.  But their real competition is driving.

Does your organization have a cause?  A galvanizing vision that would rally “warriors” in the organization to fight for the cause and not with each other?  If your vision doesn’t awaken the warrior instinct among your “troops” because it isn’t important enough or challenging enough, then go back to step one and start over.

But assuming that is in place, then it’s incumbent on you, the leader, to have a strategy for effectively dealing with internal conflicts when they occur – especially when the conflict is with you.  And if your only answer to that question uses the words “my way” and “highway,” you may be the boss, but you are no leader.


It’s an old definition of friendship – the friend is the one who walks in when everybody else is walking out.  That’s true, not just of friends of people, but friends of the organization as well.  And I think it’s a good defining moment for leadership.  Leaders are the ones who, when organizations are at a standstill and people are bailing because of conflict, can actually walk in and make a difference.  And your organization’s impossible-looking situation may well be the breeding ground for fresh leadership to emerge.

Wouldn’t it be awesome if you were that leader?

Previous post:

Next post: