How Not to Lead Through Conflict

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Why We Need Conflict

Why do we tend to think that conflict is something negative, something that we must prevent and avoid?  Unhealthy conflict can tear a team apart, but healthy disagreement is necessary for responsible business.

This post explores what can happen when we discourage respectful disagreements. As you read each scenario, imagine the ethical implications.

Squelching Important Input

Experienced leaders have learned that too little conflict in meetings is a warning sign that not all of the important points are being heard.

In her book Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott describes “The Corporate Nod” as a situation where it’s “unnaturally quiet” and “people don’t say what they are really thinking.” She describes highly skilled, responsible employees helplessly nodding in agreement as the leader demands their support for a project that they have real concerns about.

What can happen when we discourage speaking up? Aren’t we taking a huge risk that we will make an unethical decision? What if our team members see the problem and we don’t, and what if we don’t listen to them?

Killing Employe Engagement

People want to be engaged in meaningful work. It brings out their best. And there is another important benefit of employee engagement – “Engaged employees reduce ethics risk” according to The Ethics Resource Center and the Hay Group in their Supplemental Research Brief, 2009 National Business Ethics Survey: Employee Engagement.

When we squelch input from employees, and they feel strongly about issues they cannot weigh in on, we will lose their engagement in their work. Disengaged employees go through the motions of getting their work done, but feel undervalued, underutilized and unappreciated.

What can happen when people are not listened to, and they disengage from their work? Will they be as motivated to protect your company’s reputation? Will they report problems? Will they make ethical decisions or take the easier, less ethical path?

Allowing Personal Attacks

Mark Gerzon, in his book, Leading Through Conflict, says that “In many settings, debate is disintegrating into little more than verbal brawling in coats and ties.” This kind of conflict is damaging to companies. It leads to a toxic workplace, where it is hard to get work done and employees do not feel safe.

What can happen when we allow employees to personally attack each other? When we allow personal attacks, we are also allowing disrespect. When we allow disrespect, we send a message that “anything goes” in making a point. When we send the message that “anything goes in making a point” aren’t we encouraging unethical behavior? How much of a stretch is it  from verbally attacking a coworker to other unethical interpersonal behaviors like bullying?

Leading through conflict does not mean squelching important input, killing employee engagement or allowing personal attacks. Instead, it involves:

  • clear ground rules
  • an openness to learning
  • a respect for differences
  • a commitment to listen even when it’s bad news
  • giving up the need to be  “right” and being willing to listen to other points of view
  • a focus on collaboration
  • accountability for respectful behavior

Was your last meeting too quiet? It’s worth taking the extra time to be sure that people are heard. Encourage everyone to participate so that you can get the benefit of their experience. Fostering open communication, even when there’s bad news, is part of building an ethical culture.


For more, see new book 7 Lenses and the 21 Question Assessment: How Current is My Message About Ethics?

7 Lenses is a Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner in Business Ethics41cEVx-Tu4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
2014 Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
About 7 Lenses  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses

© 2012 Leading in Context LLC 


  1. Hits close to home! When the leader is also the experienced one who teaches the team, it’s really difficult to listen and not jump in to correct. I finally learned to let the team run without me every now and then.

    Leading through conflict is hard but, leading through crisis will make or break you. I have been broken.


  2. Great post – Got me thinking.
    About “giving up the need to be ”right” and being willing to listen to other points of view”:
    I would add, foster an environment where people can change their belief/opinion at any time without having to fear they lose face. I have found myself in quite a few meetings and discussions where people were locked in their position without any opportunity to get out of it without losing face.


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