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Opinion: Promoted leaders need to understand conflict capacity

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Hundreds of books have been written about succession planning, but there’s one skill set often overlooked when it comes to leadership advancement in health care: Conflict capacity.

Conflict capacity is not only about knowing when you’ve hit your limit mentally and emotionally, but also expanding your tolerance for discomfort and skillfully navigating the complexities of conflict.

In health care, conflict includes disputes between physicians, unrest among employees and disagreements between departments of the same organization. Issues can range from sexual harassment and threats of physical violence to disruptive behavior and inappropriate joking. Unmanaged, these conflicts can affect patient health, workplace safety and profitability.

A health care leader who has a low tolerance for conflict will unintentionally contribute to a toxic work environment with many negative outcomes, i.e., absenteeism, turnover and even litigation.

Simply put, conflict feels bad, and promoting a new leader who has not developed conflict capacity is a recipe for failure.

How to identify
Three patterns identify leaders who lack conflict capacity: Avoiding, appeasing and aggression.

Avoiders say, “We’re all adults,” and “I shouldn’t have to tell them.” Appeasers justify high-conflict behavior because “They are a high performer,” or “They have seniority.” Aggressors retaliate, and say, “I didn’t ask you to work here. Find another job.”

A former client who worked as a human resources leader in a large health care organization wrote to me when she realized the detrimental effects of avoiding conflict.

“I’m just about at the end of a yearlong process of managing a disruptive employee. This situation ended up with lawyers involved and should reach a settlement today. It’s been a long and painful process, as this employee had been tolerated for 18 years. This employee was occasionally talked to, but since she was considered a ‘high performer,’ she was allowed to carry on, hurting patients, families and staff along the way, as well as creating chaos in her wake of disruption. The entire process has taken a toll on me, my team and the employee. I didn’t realize how hard emotionally and mentally it would really be.”

Three ingredients
Conflict capacity is a combination of three elements: Culture, the inner game and the outer game. Think of a Venn diagram with three circles overlapping. Here’s a brief snapshot of each:

Culture. The culture must be a fit for a new leader, whether it’s a chief nursing officer, director, HR executive or technician turned manager. The culture is about how leaders at the top respond to conflict. Do they avoid? If so, don’t expect the newly promoted director to right the ship. They won’t be supported, and as a result, the new leader learns quickly to align with the example in front of them. If managers aren’t making decisions, it could be cultural: They’re following examples at the top or their past decisions have been overridden to keep peace.

Outer game. The outer game is about interpersonal communication skills, including coaching and conflict resolution. Usually these are formally developed skills, methods and processes that help leaders clarify outcomes and direct actions to a positive end result.

Inner game. The inner game is the tolerance to withstand the storm. The inner game isn’t about fearlessness but the willingness to see conflict as an opportunity to expand and lead change. The inner game is about self-awareness, emotional intelligence and courage. What stops many leaders from becoming truly great leaders is the emotional toll that comes with leading in difficult times. With the right skill development, the inner game also improves and expands conflict capacity.

Advancing leaders without building conflict capacity leads to organizational problems. Leaders with low conflict capacity struggle in their roles no matter how equipped they are academically or technically.

The first step in adoption of these principles is to do an honest assessment of the culture and determine how conflict is viewed and managed. The second step is to provide skills training and coaching for leaders and those who want to become leaders. The third step is to provide coaching support to help leaders evolve and grow in their inner game. Leaders get results when the culture intersects with the inner game and outer game.


Marlene Chism is a consultant, author and LinkedIn global learning platform expert. Her books include “Stop Workplace Drama,” “No-Drama Leadership” and “7 Ways to Stop Drama in Your Healthcare Practice.” She can be reached at marlene@marlenechism.com.

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