Even though I am not a leadership scholar nor am I a leader in any real capacity, I have spent much time over my 35 years of like thinking about leadership and authority and how to properly use power and influence to lead people. Having a mother who reached tall heights in terms of leadership in the field of psychiatry and taught me many of her lessons in leadership and adminstratuon, having served myself as a pastor in various roles, and having been under various authorities of wide-ranging quality, some of whom I have sought to model myself on and others who I have sought to be the very opposite of. As a result, I have had the opportunity to think about it thoroughly and critically while also have experience on both ends of the spectrum.
One thing that has become particularly salient is how leadership handles conflict, particularly conflicts with their own authority and influence. Conflicts are inevitable part of life as we each have our own goals and interests, and sometimes these come into tension with each others in ways that we are unwilling or incapable of seeing a different way to address them. Sometimes we get entrenched in conflict because we tire of accomodating and we stick our heels into the ground. Sometimes we get entrenched because neither party can understand the other. Sometimes we get entrenched in conflict because the other people has not played “nice” and we don’t want to play “nice” with those who play “dirty.” There are a whole host of reasons why we get entrenched into conflict.
However, there is one place where entrenched conflicts have the greatest potential to cause long term harm is when conflict is had between parties with asymmetrical power and influence. When one party has more resource than another to address conflicts in a way that can put the more vulnerable party in challenging, threatening, or confusing situations, it ethically behooves people seeking to lead others out of a concern for the people they lead to develop an internal set of questions and metrics they use to assess what happens in conflicts. What may be considered to be rude in a conflict between ‘equal’ parties can be considered threatened when coming from a more powerful party. For instance, if one friend when he gets into a heated argument with another blurts out “you’re a moron,” it has a different impact than when a superior were to say the same thing. Further aggravating the problem is that an aggressive conflict behavior from an equal party can usually be responded to effectively, whereas the same behavior from a superior is often much harder for the inferior to deflect.
As a consequence, one of the first things ethically concerned leaders need to have in mind is the recognition of how their authority can be used when they engage with conflicts with those who are more vulnerable. Leaders who are out to establish themselves and their prestige are unlikely to give anything beyond a passing consideration to how their power has the potential to impact conflicts. However, to those who ultimately want to serve everything through the authority and influence that has been entrusted to them, it is essential to grasp how authority and the perception of power influence conflict dynamics.
Nevertheless, we can have the best of intentions in this matter and still fail in how we use our authority due to two pervasive human problems: (1) we are human and as a result we are too inclined to react based upon our first instincts when we get emotional and (2) we are human and we are often far more ignorant than we can recognize (in other words, there are often way more unknown unknowns than we are often comfortable to acknowledge). We can get readily heated about something we believe that someone has done and act with an illusory sense of confidence about what happened and the intentions that person had. When we get into conflict situations where we are focused on people intentions rather than their words and actions, we are in a place where we are vulnerable to reacting without thinking about the potential consequence of the actions as we are focused on addressing an invisible threat that we can never disprove; in circumstances like this, our emotions and our ignorance combine to lock us in a persistent state of conflict vigilance. When we get into a state of conflict vigilance, we are often only satisfied with the the subduing, surrender, and/or exiling of the other party before we can feel safe. Depending on how much was done to provoke a person in those phase of conflict, the feelings of conflict vigilance can take a long time to unwind down. Once we get into conflict vigilance with the combination of high emotions and epistemic ignorance, we are very susceptible to taking actions that may have long term repercussions.
The key then, as leaders, is to have an internalized set of questions that we can use to both (1) hold back the strong emotions that lead to question people’s intentions and (2) broaden our awareness of the unknowns, turning unknown unknowns into known unknowns that we can seek to understand. However, it is important than the number questions we keep in mind be small, so as to be realistically internalized and usable when we deal with conflicts, but at the same time, broad enough to be able to help us survey the landscape of conflicts as they arise.
Based upon my personal experience, both as leader and subordinate, there are three questions that are vital for us to internalize in order to deal with conflict constructively. The first two pertain to communication and the third one pertains to context.
The first question is: Has the subordinate acted in a way that they reasonable understood interpreted the leader to be communicating? Leaders often times put themselves in situations where they actual encourage the very behaviors that cause them to get agitated. When an authority says “feel free to come talk if there is any concern you have” and then that person takes them up on it and tries to inform them of concerns, some leaders might be irked about negative news. I remember one situation personally where I had an authority who offered to talk to me about any concerns I had about a situation we were facing. The first time I did, they were willing to “listen” but only to correct me, whereas the second time I went to them they became visibly repulsed by my attempt from the beginning. Often times, we as leaders tell people to do the very things we don’t want to do, often because it is the “right thing to say” but we don’t mean it genuinely.
There are other cases where an authority might communicate something with a subordinate, but then the authority changes their mind without either remember what they told their subordinate the first time or informing the subordinate of the change of mind. We often call this moving the goalposts, which sometimes happens innocently due to innocent memory lapses and the changes that varying circumstances can create, but can also happen to do more narcissistic memory lapses or even conscious manipulation.
This first question relates to holding oneself as a leader and authority accountable for one’s own communication. If we recognize that those under our authority may do something we have a problem with but it is due to our communication, then we can do a double check to verify if we are the leaders are the one responsible for creating the situation as it was.
However, it is important that we recognize in this that there are often many reasonable interpretations of something we said or did. If we expect those under our authority to be more or less perfect mind-readers of our intentions and meanings, this question will serve us little good as there is not such thing a mind-reading. Under the conditions of limited communication and interaction, most people are actually very limited in their abilities to fully comprehend what another person means. As most authorities have a large group of subordinates that they can not spend constant time with, this leaves most people under their authority with limitations as to how clearly they can understand the expressed expectations of the leader. So, it behooves an ethically concerned leader to ask the question of whether a subordinate acted in an unpleasing or irritating way because of a reasonable interpretation of what they as the leader expressed, even if that reasonable interpretation isn’t what the leader originally intended.
The second question related to communication seems to be similar on the surface, but it is a bit different: did the subordinate misunderstand something that they should be considered responsible for understanding? While both of these questions relate to questions of miscommunication, the first one relates to the leader taking responsibility for his community, whereas this second question relates to how to address the reasonable responsibility the subordinate to appropriately understand communication. Sometimes, the actions of subordinates is due to their irresponsibility in understanding what is expected of them, such as reading a company wide email that had been sent multiple times or they simply did not show the due care and attention to what had been said to them. While this may be frustrating and something that may need to be remedied, recognizing what can be referred to as a person’s “interpretive irresponsibility” can allow us to understand the conflict as due to communication issues, rather than other interpretations we might provide of the conflict.
However, it is important to not assume interpretive irresponsibility without clear considerations for it. Otherwise, those in the authority might be inclined to put all the communicative responsibility on our subordinates who have relatively little power in compared to those with authority, who have more ability to ask questions and make clarifications of expectations if they are needed. Ethical leadership needs to avoid this: recognize that you have the most communicative power and so don’t be inclined to pass off problems of communication onto those under your authority.
The third questions relates to the circumstances of the subordinate: is the behavior of the person largely due to situations that either pressure them or prevent them from acting in the appropriate manner that is beyond their responsibility and capacity to manage? In other words, are people put in situations where they can not be reasonable expected to act the way leadership would expect?
In conflicts, it is tempted for us to immediately ascribe the cause of people’s behaviors to some problematic trait they have. They don’t trust authority. They are stubborn. They don’t care. They never listen… So on and so on. However, social psychologists have recognized our propensity towards the fundamental attribution error, where we are inclined to explain people’s behaviors, particularly those we don’t like, to some enduring trait in the person. Internalizing a question about circumstances allows us to work against this pervasive bias, allowing us to understand the relationship of people’s actions to their circumstances.
However, this question is more specific in that it addresses a common problem that can happen in organizations that give people very defined roles they have to work within: people being put in positions to fail. Occasionally done intentional, most of the time people without much authority are put in positions to fail because no one is paying attention. When people in such positions act in odd if not extreme manner, it is often critical for leaders to figure out if a person was faced with situation they could not have reasonably been expected to address in a satisfactory manner.
These three questions are not meant to be exhaustive questions about how leadership handles potential conflict with their subordinates. There are many various factors that can go into causing a conflict to take the shape it has. However, by internalizing these three questions (or another other set of similar questions), it provides leadership with a practice that can help them to navigate the often confusing and murky waters that is conflicts between people without jumping to the worst conclusions prematurely, when the time allows for deliberation. These questions include the two most important ingredients for understanding social behavior, communication and circumstance, while also effectively training the leader to think in such a way that they can be open to other considerations that may then come to mind.