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Mastering Conflict Competence: A Leadership Guide to Navigating Organizational Disputes

by Tommy Davis PhD

"Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader" by Craig E. Runde and Tim A. Flanagan focuses on equipping leaders with the skills to handle conflict effectively within their organizations. The book emphasizes understanding the dynamics of conflict, recognizing personal triggers, and developing strategies for managing emotions. Key points include:

  1. Conflict Dynamics: Understanding how conflicts escalate and identifying personal responses.

  2. Emotional Regulation: Techniques to manage emotions during conflicts.

  3. Constructive Responses: Developing constructive approaches to handle conflicts and avoid destructive outcomes.

  4. Organizational Support: Ensuring organizational structures support effective conflict management​.

Conflict is a ubiquitous phenomenon that leaders must adeptly navigate to foster harmony and mitigate escalation. Differences in worldviews, stemming from diverse experiences, often underlie initial tensions. Consequently, scholars and practitioners offer recommendations on managing conflicts in various settings, particularly workplaces where human interactions are essential. Leaders play a critical role in conflict resolution and can adapt their behavior to deescalate negative tensions that impair morale and efficiency. Runde and Flanagan (2013) delineate five conflict styles that leaders employ: competing, avoiding, accommodating, compromising, and collaborating. These styles reflect the leader's evolved ideas and cognitive justifications relevant to their context.

The competing style, characterized by a "high level of interest in satisfying one’s own interest and low concern about the other person’s needs" (Runde & Flanagan, 2013, p. 49), is often adopted by leaders whose primary desire is to win the argument and reinforce their philosophy, thereby satisfying their ego. Competitiveness is intrinsic to humanity, mirrored in various sectors such as sports and entrepreneurial rivalry. Leaders, however, must harness conflict to their advantage and foster collaboration to achieve collective outcomes. Toegel and Barsoux (2016) argue that team conflict can either add value or destroy it, with good conflict fostering respectful debate and mutually agreed-upon solutions, while bad conflict hampers productivity and innovation (p. 79).

Competing interests among groups present leaders with the challenge of maneuvering obstacles to maintain stability. Hyter (2016) asserts that organizations must eliminate the obstacles that hinder development and create a culture that encourages continuous improvement. Leaders encountering competitive spirits can redirect these resources towards constructive goals. Employing diverse conflict styles, contingent on the situation, enhances flexibility and adaptability in leadership. Runde and Flanagan (2013) emphasize that "diversity among problem-solving styles brings flexibility and adaptability".

Avoiding conflict is not necessarily virtuous, as missed opportunities are akin to overlooking potential treasures. Conflicts may indicate that competing views need to be reconciled to yield optimal results. Haas and Mortensen (2016) state that "diversity in knowledge, views, and perspectives, as well as in age, gender, and race, can help teams be more creative and avoid groupthink". Avoiding conflict can prevent crucial ideas from becoming conventional wisdom.

The accommodating style, defined by Runde and Flanagan (2013) as a "low level of concern about meeting one’s own needs and high level of interest in meeting the needs of others", has its place in leadership. Understanding why disagreements exist can guide leaders in resolving issues that do not threaten organizational goals. Toegel and Barsoux (2016) note that "colleagues routinely make fast judgments about the character, competence, or status of their peers" (p. 80). Leaders who acknowledge others' concerns can benefit from such actions. Briner (1996) exemplifies this with Christ’s immediate responses to needs, highlighting the relevance of accommodation in leadership.

Compromise, often perceived negatively, can be constructive in seeking middle ground to settle emotions. Katzenbach and Khan (2009) highlight that "an organization’s performance is highly dependent on people whose attitudes and behaviors are influenced by emotional feelings". Compromise respects boundaries while considering organizational objectives. Dallas (2015) explains that change redefines established boundaries, potentially causing resistance unless safety, significance, and control are preserved. Effective compromise can prevent the loss of talented employees and maintain organizational harmony. Goleman (2011) emphasizes the importance of empathy in decision-making, considering employees' feelings.

Collaboration requires that all parties benefit equally from the resolution, posing a challenge in conflict management. Leaders must demonstrate mutual benefits within conflict situations. Collective bargaining units, such as trade unions, require leaders from both sides to collaborate, ensuring that working conditions and compensation are agreeable. Failed negotiations can lead to strikes, disrupting operations and customer satisfaction. Effective collaboration seeks to satisfy laborers, managers, and customers alike, adhering to contract provisions and resorting to arbitration when necessary.

In the corporate world, unions are often discouraged due to the costs associated with collective bargaining. Leaders must adopt strategies that make unionization unnecessary by fostering a culture of security and trust. Boleman and Deal (2013) assert that unfulfilled basic needs for security and trust can lead to withdrawal, unionization, strikes, sabotage, or resignation. Therefore, conflict styles should be viewed as an art rather than a science, with specific engagements requiring tailored approaches.

Understanding the underlying factors contributing to conflict is crucial for effective resolution. Leaders must investigate and address these factors to prevent recurrence. Runde and Flanagan (2013) advocate for perspective-taking, which involves understanding others' viewpoints. Implementing the psychodynamic leadership approach (Winkler, 2010) can provide insights into the behavior in question, similar to diagnosing a disease accurately to prescribe the appropriate remedy.

This writer, often invited to speak to offenders on parole and probation, leverages personal experiences to connect with them. Understanding offenders' worldviews and offering remedies from a related perspective can bridge the gap between law enforcement and the community. Conner (1992) describes one's frame of reference as their perception of reality. Leaders must grasp the backdrop of badly-behaved individuals to prescribe effective interventions.

Stone, Patton, and Heen (2010) distinguish between blame, which involves judgment, and contribution, which fosters understanding (p. 59). This principle underscores the importance of addressing contributing factors in conflict resolution. The apostle Paul’s exhortation to live at peace with everyone "as far as it depends on you" (Romans 12:18, New International Version) highlights the religious practitioner’s role in promoting peace through creative conflict management at the height of the clash of religious ideas in the First Century.

In summary, leaders must navigate conflict through a diverse range of styles, understanding the underlying factors and perspectives of all parties involved. This approach fosters collaboration, accommodation, compromise, and, ultimately, organizational harmony and efficiency.


Boleman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2013). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership (5th ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Briner, B. (1996). The management methods of Jesus: Ancient wisdom for modern business. Thomas Nelson.

Conner, D. (1992). Managing at the speed of change: How resilient managers succeed and prosper where others fail. Random House.

Dallas, H. (2015). The DNA of an effective leader: 7 key elements that lead to success. Harvest House Publishers.

Goleman, D. (2011). The brain and emotional intelligence: New insights. More Than Sound.

Haas, M., & Mortensen, M. (2016). The secrets of great teamwork. Harvard Business Review, 94(6), 70-76.

Hyter, M. C. (2016). The power of choice: Embracing efficacy to drive your career. Greenleaf Book Group Press.

Katzenbach, J. R., & Khan, Z. (2009). Leading outside the lines: How to mobilize the informal organization, energize your team, and get better results. Jossey-Bass.

Runde, C. E., & Flanagan, T. A. (2013). Becoming a conflict competent leader: How you and your organization can manage conflict effectively (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Sowell, T. (2011). The Thomas Sowell reader. Basic Books.

Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S. (2010). Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. Penguin Books.

Toegel, G., & Barsoux, J. L. (2016). How to become a better leader. MIT Sloan Management Review, 58(1), 77-80.

Winkler, I. (2010). Contemporary leadership theories: Enhancing the understanding of the complexity, subjectivity and dynamic of leadership. Springer.

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