How To Resolve Conflicts Like A Servant Leader

Of course you can mediate, but there’s more than that to getting people to work well together

Omar Rabbolini
Mar 10, 2020 · 7 min read
Photo by Chris Sabor on Unsplash

Sean and Tracy couldn’t work together. It’s not that they hated each other on a personal level, it’s just that they had a very different working style, steeped in years of experience in their respective fields. She was an engineering whiz, who built the backend of a recently acquired startup pretty much single-handedly, while he was an operations mastermind, with years of corporate success backed by demonstrable growth.

He saw her as a hippie, she saw him as a boomer. In the middle of it all, Alek, trying to manage both while running his startup. Did he build the wrong team? Was there any hope of success with such contrasting characters in the house?

What a pickle. You have two people on your team who are brilliant in their respective areas, yet they cannot work together to achieve even greater success. This happens all the time, in any kind of team and any kind of company, from the smallest startup to the biggest enterprise.

Often, a traditional leader finds this situation quite challenging, if not downright annoying. On one hand, they don’t want to get involved in the conflict, as to avoid further negativity or resentment from either party. On the other, they know that the conflict needs to be resolved before it escalates, becoming unmanageable.

As a servant leader, perhaps the annoyance of the traditional model is replaced with fear: the fear to be seen as taking sides, or that of making either party unhappy.

About the latter, I have already talked about the difference between being a people pleaser and a servant leader in another article, so I won’t cover that further here.

Instead, let’s look at how to resolve conflicts without appearing to be taking sides.

Understanding the root cause

Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

A conflict is a form of interaction between two parties where one, or both, try to block the other’s actions or otherwise refuse to collaborate. This is normally born out of a low opinion of the other’s skills, ability or reliability. This is not necessarily rational, and we can achieve a lot in terms of conflict resolution just by understanding how it came to be, and rectifying accordingly.

Conflict is often informed by one’s opinion, something that isn’t always rational

There are three main aspects that influence one’s opinion on others:

  • Track record
  • Prior experience
  • Bias

These aren’t in random order: they’re sorted from the most rational to the least. Because of this difference in rationality, they need to be handled differently. Let’s take a look.

Track record

Track record is the collection of all prior interactions between the two. Each interaction resulted in a more or less positive outcome that, in the long run, helped to get them to where they are today. Both negative and positive interactions are part of this track record, however people are more likely to focus only on the negatives in times of disagreement.

Instead, we should help them harvest the power of their prior positive interactions. We should help them see those cases in which the action of one party resulted in an advantage to the other, or otherwise situations where both sides reaped a benefit in the end.

Sometimes, finding these positives can be difficult, and that’s why it’s always worth to keep track of the successes of the team as they happen, so that you can refer to them later.

Prior experience

This is about prior situations similar to the current conflict that one has experienced. The person is projecting past negative outcomes on the current situation, while ignoring the fact that the actors are different.

It would be beneficial to look into these past stories with the excuse of learning from them, all the while picking out the differences between those events and the current situation, especially in terms of the people involved, their characteristics and their motives. Are these differences enough to grant the benefit of the doubt to the other party in the current conflict? This is good food for thought for the individuals involved.

Bias

Bias is the most difficult one to address. This is the prejudice one has against the label that they’ve put on their counterpart. We saw Sean labeling Tracy as a hippie, and probably associating a bunch of stereotypes to that label. Same for Tracy, who sees Sean as a boomer.

Addressing bias isn’t easy as it’s often the result of years of conditioning, even in the most tolerant and accommodating person. The best we can do here is to bring back the discussion to the qualities of the individual, and not of the label they’ve been slammed with. We can look at their track record and past experience to show what the person’s actually about, regardless of what the other party might be currently projecting onto them.

Track record, prior experience and bias, together with one’s motivational values, form a kind of lens through which the person interprets another’s actions. This lens is often the prime source of misunderstanding, as the intentions of others are assumed to be driven by the same motivations as one’s own, therefore creating the conflict.

Building trust

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Understanding the root cause isn’t sufficient to resolve a disagreement. It’s a good start, but it’s not enough. The next step is for the two parties to find common ground, so that we can help them build trust in each other and hopefully get to a better working relationship.

Again, like the fallout didn’t happen overnight, trust isn’t going to be built or rebuilt over a short period of time. The key point here is to allow for a new track record to form, perhaps by inviting collaboration over small projects, or otherwise in other similar baby steps.

Trust is built up slowly, over time

As servant leaders, we should strive to create the opportunities for this collaboration to be successful, and at the same time help the two sides to work through the challenges that will inevitably arise along the way. All along, we should also encourage communication, so as to avoid letting assumptions fill in the information / knowledge gap otherwise present.

The best form of communication is a direct sync-up between the two parties, as often as possible. However, if there’s a lack of trust this runs the risk of becoming an exercise in courtesy more than anything else, serving no purpose as the actual kinks won’t get worked through. An alternative here is for the leader to sit in the middle of the exchange, perhaps by requesting frequent updates from both sides to then share them with the opposite party.

When everything else fails

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Of course, there’s always the possibility that the conflicting parties won’t get any closer in spite of all the efforts set out above. This doesn’t mean we need to remove either person from the team, nor that we should encourage them to leave.

Unless they’re required to work closely with each other by nature of their engagement with the company / team, it’s perfectly fine for the two to work in isolation from each other. If the occasional collaboration arises, we can get somebody to sit in the middle to mediate between the parties. This somebody can be ourselves, true to the spirit of servant leadership, but it doesn’t need to be. It can be anybody with good empathy, even from within the team(s) the people in conflict belong to. This should be sufficient to defuse most of the hostility.

Don’t fire people just because they can’t work together

In the end, the important thing is to harvest the best of the parties’ potential while ensuring their acrimony towards each other doesn’t spread across the organization, as it’s too easy for people to take sides and for the rift to grow deeper.

This is again something that the servant leader can address through communication and transparency. Both sides have qualities that should be celebrated publicly, and shortcomings that need to be addressed in private. That’s the narrative that should prevail.

Photo by Jungwoo Hong on Unsplash

In conclusion, conflict is inevitable in heterogeneous teams of any size, and that’s something that any leader needs to learn how to address. And by addressing, I don’t mean trying to change people’s behavior or their way of working, I mean creating healthy relationships built on trust and on the understanding of others’ journeys and directions. After all, we’re all driven by desire and personal agendas, although the intensity of this drive might vary from person to person.

A healthy working relationship is built on trust and the understanding of each other’s journey and direction

When dealing with conflict, the servant leader provides an impartial perspective to each party, and works together with both to build trust. She sifts through their bias, past experiences and existing track record to debunk unfounded assumptions and bring positiveness to the table. She encourages communication, and the celebration of small wins for both sides until there’s enough trust between them.

If all of this fails, she looks for alternative arrangements or semi-permanent mediation, but only as a last resort. And that’s really the difference between the servant leader and the traditional one: the servant leader is an instrument for growth and the fostering of self awareness, something that is, in itself, an antidote to conflict.

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