August 4, 2020

Navigating Conflict to Create Coordinated Movement

Leadership Development | Team Development

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Over the past several months I have listened to clients who have struggled with more conflict in their organizations than ever before. In one conversation, Doug (not his real name), a CMO in the Midwest, mentioned that he was having conflict with his CEO. Because they normally see eye-to-eye on most things, he wasn’t sure how to handle it.

As we explored the nature of the conflict, Doug was concerned about the falling safety and quality issues in the hospital. He said, “The CEO just doesn’t get it! All he seems to care about is managing the numbers, not addressing the real issues.” He wondered how to get through to his CEO, how to get him to understand Doug’s perspective and change his priorities.

With heightened financial pressures, passion for doing what is right, commitment to values and patient care, polarities of extremes and various perspectives, conflict becomes more prominent. Oftentimes, conflict carries a negative connotation. But we describe conflict as any situation in which there are differences in values, interests, needs, ideas or styles among parties who have some level of interdependence.

In Doug’s case, it felt like there were two sides, one that cared about the patient and one that cared about the finances.

Tips for Moving Forward in Conflict

Dealing with crisis will give us even more opportunities for conflict than times without crisis. Today, it’s especially important to be intentional about moving through conflict. The following tips will be helpful to create the path forward:

Pay attention to your own triggers and biases.

As some leadership experts will tell you, self-awareness is the number one leadership competency.  Knowing where you might be triggered gives you information about how to approach a conflict. With careful self-reflection, Doug noticed that because of the high degree of responsibility he felt toward his patients, whenever there was a focus on anything else other than direct patient care, he would dig in his heals and take on the role of advocating for the patient while at the same time , he would jump to the conclusion that others did not care about the patient. Once he recognized this, he was able to open up to the possibility that there are multiple ways to serve the patient.

Own your story.

As Doug explored his triggers, he realized that he had created a story about his CEO. The story was, “I care about patients and he does not.” We then explored some other stories that could be true. He thought of another possible story: the CEO might be fearful that if we don’t have enough resources, we may not be able to take care of the patient.

The key to owning your own story is to recognize that there may be multiple ways to see a situation and “my way is one perspective not THE perspective.” As Doug explored the various stories he held about his CEO, his energy shifted and he was able to focus on how to approach the CEO to move forward.

Seek to move forward.

Neuroscience research shows us that under times of conflict we typically respond emotionally from the Amygdala part of our brain. When this occurs, our tendency is to protect, defend, blame, make excuses and sometimes disengage. We also tend to focus on what happened and spend time arguing our perspective.

When in conflict, it is important to engage our pre-frontal cortex of our brain to see possibilities and ways to move forward. This can be challenging when we are caught in our emotions.

As Doug began to address the conflict with the CEO he focused on the following principles:

  • Seek first to understand, before being understood. This wonderful tip from Stephen Covey helped him focus to make sure he understood the intent behind the CEO’s actions. He was able to see that the CEO was trying to be a good steward to the hospital so that the Doug and other physicians could focus on direct patient care.
  • Behind every complaint there is a request. As Doug was telling me about all about the problems with the CEO, I asked him, “What do you want to see differently? What are your requests of the CEO?” This question allowed him to think about where he wanted to move forward versus focusing on the issues of the past. He was then able to approach the CEO with ideas and solutions instead of being attached to what was wrong and why things don’t work.
  • Widen the gap between stimulus and response. Watch your reaction and seek to be thoughtful in your response. Doug had to continue to be aware of his triggers and biases. With this awareness he was able to be more thoughtful in his response versus reacting to his emotions throughout the conversation. As his CEO was hooked in his own emotional response, Doug was able to resist the temptation to react in kind and instead was able to be thoughtful and intentional about how best to move forward.
  • Ask: What does moving forward look like?  Once Doug understood the CEO’s intentions, he was able to see that from a values and vision perspective they were aligned more then he thought. At this point he was able to focus on moving forward, engaging in solutions and ideas. When he started feeling defensive, he would ask “what does moving forward look like?  How do we ensure financial stewardship AND continue on our quality and safety journey.”

Of course, conflict can be multidimensional and complex in nature. Degree of trust, quality of the relationship, personality styles, motivators, values, experience, organizational structure, and desires ALL play a factor in how leaders navigate conflict.

Although there is not an exact formula to solve every conflict you may face, applying the principles above will help move the conflict from one of feeling dissidence and being stuck to one of using creativity and solving problems.


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About the author

Cheryl Foss, MSW

Cheryl Foss, MSW, a MEDI Executive Coach, has over 20 years of Leadership Development, Team Development, Strategy Development, Organization Design, and Change Management experience.

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