I have been spending quite a bit of time recently studying and trying to understand conflict.  Conflict at work, conflict at home, conflict with my spouse and conflict with friends.  Many of us are afraid of this topic.  We think that all is well if we don’t have conflict or if we do have conflict that perhaps something is wrong with us.  But we all know that if you are alive and around people, you are going to have conflict.  But why do we have it?   And why must we have it?  I am going to approach this from a business point of view but many of the same principles can be applied across the board. 

I think conflict makes many of us miserable or afraid because we are not honest with ourselves, nor honest with each other. Sometimes we don’t feel safe, sometimes we are bullies, sometimes our pride gets the better of us, and most of all, we just want what we want when we want it and it upsets us when we don’t get it.


Let’s take a moment to talk about honesty in regard to conflict.  As an employer, are you communicating your expectations to your employees?  Are you having honest conversations over what you need from them the first week you hire them and throughout their employment with your company?  Are you setting boundaries with them about what is acceptable in your workplace and not acceptable?  Have you thought enough about what those boundaries are to communicate that to new hires? 

Our new and old employees need to know and want to know what our expectations are, and they want to know what the boundaries you have set for your company are.  Nobody wants to be the foolish person that upsets the boss.  Communicating your expectations and boundaries can be hard for some bosses to do especially if you are a people-pleasing boss or a boss that likes to bully.  What about a passive-aggressive approach?  Telling the employee but not really telling them and hoping they get it.  Best bet, they don’t get it.  Most people do not pick up on subtleties and let’s face it, you’re really not being honest at all.  But if an employee violates a boundary or doesn’t meet an expectation that wasn’t communicated to them properly, who’s fault is it that they violated it?

What does honesty do for us as employers?  It sets the stage for freedom.  When employees and employers know what the boundaries are, they are free to bounce around within those boundaries.  You don’t have to watch every move your employee makes, and you don’t have to feel the burden of frustration. 

Sometimes we don’t feel safe

As a boss, it can be a scary thing to be honest.  We want our employees to feel safe and we want to be agreeable and we want people to like us.  Questions about whether an employee is going to like me at the end of the day arise.  What if we have conflict and they can’t get over it but we still have to work together?  What if they make my work environment intolerable?  Sure, there are people out there like that, but most of us can take a different point of view, or except the boundaries as long as they are upfront. 

Some of you may have a boss out there that doesn’t make you feel safe to share ideas, or to challenge the sacred cow of your company.  What do you do then?  Challenge and change what you can in your area of responsibility or within your team.  You be the safe person in your group.  You be the person that will hear ideas and be the one to listen.  You be the one to facilitate purposeful conflict. Take ownership of what is going on around you.

I recently heard a story about how Dr. Suess’ Cat and the Hat came about.  The publisher challenged Dr. Suess to write a children’s story using only 50 words in a bet that he couldn’t do it.  Sometimes creating environments that challenge the standard and create conflict produces some of the most creative approaches to our businesses and our teams. 

As an employer, it is our responsibility to create safe places where the expectation in the meeting is that there is no judgment, no stupid ideas and that not all ideas will be accepted but everyone’s input is valued.  This type of idea generation is going to produce conflict.  Count on each team member having differing points of view.  Count on people bouncing their ideas off each other and ideas morphing into a better idea and yes, it can get heated.  Your job is to maintain a respectful safe environment where all people are valued.  Having some of these intense brainstorming sessions can produce some of the most creative innovative ideas in your business.  The questions arise within your team when creating these safe places… Can each person not be married to there idea?  Can the value of the person be separated from the value of the idea?

Sometimes we are Bullies

Yes, we are off the playground but that doesn’t mean we have grown out of being a bully.  What is a bully?  The dictionary says that it is, “a person who habitually seeks to harm or intimidate those whom they perceive as vulnerable.”  Are you the person that seeks out the weak in your businesses and tries to make a person feel small?  Are you purposefully trying to create conflict because of your pride?  Are you trying to make yourself seem smart?  Let me say this to you, “STOP”.  You are not helping your company by thinking you are the smartest in your company, in fact, you are diminishing it.  If you are a leader in your company and you behave this way, you are, in fact, diminishing yourself and all your people.  For more on this topic, I recommend reading Multipliers by Liz Wiseman.


Let’s face it, being a leader and leading people into conflict requires a lot of humility.  It means we humble ourselves to the other person enough to hear what they say.  It means that we know ourselves (Self-Awareness) well enough to control our own emotions (Self- Management) enough to hear what the other person has to say.  It means that others may have good ideas that may violate your sacred cow but make your company more profitable.  It may mean that maybe two ideas may converge but you will need to let go of your “baby” (idea).  It means creating a safe space that every person is valuable but not all views or ideas will be moved forward.  Being a leader is very humbling and to be a great leader one must be able to go into the hard places, have the hard discussions, set expectations and boundaries, hold people accountable to those and ultimately let go of pride.

This is a hard topic, but I hope you found it inspiring.  A couple of books I would recommend is Multipliers by Liz Wisemen and Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves and also The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D

Jaime White

Human Resources Manager

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