• Pamela Waltz, PhD

If you had a problem with conflict, would you know it?

I sometimes hear from leaders that they don’t have a problem with conflict. My next question is, how would you know if you did?

Here’s the problem: Conflict starts with individual perceptions, and decades of research from neuroscience, social cognition, and psychology has shown that powerful individuals are likely to misread conflict situations. This is because the powerful process information about the social world very differently than those with less power.

Here are just a few examples from the research of how power shapes conflict perceptions:

  • Powerful people tend to be less inhibited in expressing disagreement, more confident about their opinions, more likely to pursue their goals aggressively, more comfortable dominating in disagreements and expressing anger, and more likely to believe that rules are made for others.

  • Powerful people tend to overlook, undervalue, and underutilize the potential contributions of those with less power, largely because they devote fewer cognitive resources to processing their perspectives, opinions, and feelings. They also tend to underestimate the sources of power available to lower-power individuals, such as information, influence, discretionary effort, or the ability to sabotage.

The take-away from research is that powerful people tend to be inaccurate gauges of conflict as they interact with those of less power: “What conflict?”

Asymmetrical power situations tend to result in asymmetrical conflict perceptions.

However, the energy accompanying conflict perceptions held by the less powerful as a result of their interactions with the powerful doesn’t stay bottled up. Rather, it moves into the relational space between the parties and often into the social space they coinhabit.

In an interdependent relationship, such as that between investors and management or founders and employees, these dynamics undermine collaboration and cooperation, syphoning energy from the pursuit of collective goals.

And, whether you know it or not, you have a real problem with conflict.

Ray Dalio’s insightful book Principles presents an excellent case study of how conflict dynamics can play out inside a founder-led organization yet outside the founder’s awareness. In this instance, Ray eventually received feedback from three of his senior leaders about his “intractable people problem” and the negative impact his confrontational style was having on Bridgewater’s employees and climate. As a result, he was able to course correct, turning disagreements into a powerful tool for learning and cohesion over the years that followed.

So, if you had a problem with conflict, how would you know it?

  • Have you explicitly empowered someone to give you candid feedback about your impact on others?

  • Do you have early-warning systems and routinized procedures in place to surface and quickly resolve conflict within your team and organization before it intensifies?

  • Do people in your organization have the skills to effectively discuss and manage conflict in real time? Do you?

The more of these questions you can answer in the affirmative, the more confident you can be that if you had a problem with conflict, you would know it.