Why we struggle with conflict

Most leaders laud norms of moral courage, speaking truth to power, and a variety of other forms of “telling it like it is.” Most also, if they're really honest, will confess that such norms are sometimes more aspirational than actualized.

Why? Because acting on these norms with assertiveness is not without practical, emotional, and social risks. Even quite confident and assertive persons, if they have a modicum of emotional intelligence, will act cautiously, even hesitantly, in situations of emotionally-charged conflict. They’ll seek to mitigate these risks.

It's not so easy

I have been a consulting psychologist for over 20 years. Before that, I had extensive experience in clinical settings with individuals, couples, and families. And across the hundreds of clients that I have worked with, most cases involved themes of conflict and hopes of coping more effectively with conflict. It’s fair to say that most of us struggle to some degree, at least in certain situations and relationships, with acute levels of discomfort when facing conflict – let’s call it inhibition, even fear.  

One reason for this struggle is that we’re “wired” to be relational creatures. We want to be loved, cared about and cared for, even if we're not so comfortable expressing these needs explicitly. So, conflict that puts valued relationships at risk can feel threatening.

To complicate things further, some of the inhibitions we feel in interpersonally tense moments actually reflect positive, prosocial sensitivities and aspects personality. It is both functional and appropriate to be concerned that our actions not hurt or alienate others. So, dealing with conflict, let alone mastering it, is neither quite so simple nor quite so easy as are readiness to talk about dealing with issues head-on!

We form natural patterns of approach/avoidance. Sometimes these habits of mind and social emotion are helpful and appropriate. Other times they may err in being either too excitedly reactive or too excitedly avoidant. These extremes reveal a brittleness often governed by fear. Both the too-much and too-little paths lack a moderation we acquire from fully conscious awareness, rational appraisal, and from mature judgment. 

What does good look like then?

Let’s begin with emphasizing that our emotions are vital, immediate, and often very telling sources of data. The lower brain (limbic system) processes affective experience, i.e., immediate felt impressions, twice as fast as our upper brain (prefrontal cortex), which contributes reflective, rational thought. So, what “good” looks like in processing felt reactions to perceived fear and threat is the capacity to first notice these sensations and feelings, recognizing them as data - a metacognitive state of mind. 

This attitude is less one of automatic and declarative rational processing, and more one of curiosity and openness. In involves dialectical interaction between prefrontal cortex and limbic system . The upper brain can be governed by patterns of interpretation and attribution of meaning that are habitual, or it can be trained to prompt reflection, declare moments of “not knowing.” This a virtuous ignorance.

In these moments we recognize the need to ask, “what am I feeling, and what’s this about?” This is a mode of metacognition. It’s a self-directed intervention. It involves problematizing felt reactions, making their meaning a matter of explicit, critical inquiry.

This good or virtuous mode of responding to our emotional experience is called for when the experience in questions has become a source of frustration or a trigger of ineffective reactivity. As metacognition, it is being called out as a situation-specific exception, a situation in which we cannot afford to indulge our action biases.

Such biases are guided by habitual patterns of thought, interpretation, and action. These ways of functioning are usually reliable - that's why they've become habits - but they are not unerringly so. Tagging certain emotional experiences as exceptions helps us notice them, self-monitor in the situation, inhibit immediate reactions, prompt reflection, and gain freedom to choose how we wish to respond.   

It causes us to treat our emotional experience as a valuable source of data and meaning. It's an act of restraint, holding back. And as we make use of this intervention, we come to see restraint as a powerful kind of action in its own right. We recognize it as creating time and space (literally creating lived time and space for reflection). When it registers in that way, reflective restraint becomes an attractive, go-to modality of functioning. 

How to get started

We all form patterned (habitual) ways of thinking, feeling, and relating to others. They’re largely shaped by early life experience in our family of origin and social-cultural context. Then, as we enter the larger world, broaden our affiliations, complete our education, and enter the adult world of work and family, our role-taking presents us with new requirements for adaptively functioning. They often imply different ways of thinking, feeling, and relating. 

As indicated, reflection is a critical resource in navigating these moments of adaptive change. But the leading thread of change could stem from and be motivated by: 1) insight (fresh perspectives, ways of thinking); 2) emotion (a significant instance of emotional meaning); or 3) action (new or novel options for action). Some combination of all these factors inevitably characterize viable change, but we may each be activated by one factor more than another as a "hook" based on our personality.

In any case, no matter what get's you started, action and risk-taking will be required. We must face the difficult conflict situation, and we must initiate action in a noticeably different way. After repeated trials of initiating a changed course of action, we become more competent, confident, and capable of dealing with conflict. Felt levels of struggle becomes less daunting, our confidence and competence grows, and we are able to generalize these capacities to handle more situations with greater ease.   

I hope this analysis of the experience of conflict and how we acquire greater freedom to self-manage our response to conflict helps you recognize your personal opportunities to grow in this regard.

Leadership as Idenity Work

There are some who like to challenge idea that people can change. In some cases, they will characterize personality as something trait-like and fixed. They may say, “You are who you are.” At the same time, many of these same people will passionately insist that we must “embrace” the changes that are external to us. They seem to believe that what’s outside of us and what’s inside of us are somehow disconnected. They are wrong.   

First, there is ample evidence that not only can we change aspects of personality and identity over the course of our life, but it is perhaps the most distinctive marker of effective adaptation, i.e, intelligence. Knowing and believing this based on my professional education, research, and professional practice, I recently developed the Leader Identity Questionnaire™ (LIQ) in order to facilitate this deeper level of adaptive development.   

But my purpose here, is not to describe or promote the LIQ. Rather, I’d like to simply offer the rationale for conceptualizing and approaching leadership and leader development as identity work. It makes a difference. It’s within reach. And it sticks!   

What is identity?

Identity is the coherent, differentiated wholeness of meaning that defines an individual person as a self and agent of action to oneself and to others. Persons are differentiated by their physical appearance and distinctive patterns of overt behavior; also by acquired capabilities to think, do, and act; and, finally, by their personality, values, judgment, and ways of relating to others. All of this continues to evolve, i.e., develop, over the course of one’s life and in response to one’s experience, choices, and role-taking. Therefore, identity is an inherently personal, social, practical, and relational phenomenon.   

Leadership and leader development as identity work

We either grow, adapt and thrive (prosocial development) or we stagnate, either by retreating from life or by defiantly reacting to change and challenge with maladaptive recalcitrance. What makes the former prosocial and adaptive and the latter anti-social and maladaptive are the normative values that motivate action and shape attitude. The prosocial path seeks the common good, respects the dignity of all, and empowers others to assert aligned acts of agency. Those taking the latter path choose to check out or to dominate others. I believe the prosocial approach is to be preferred based on moral and pragmatic considerations.   

Leader identity development is important because:   

As leaders, we are free to implement our self-concept (the leader we would like to be) and promote the flourishing of our enterprise and its people. Indeed, doing so is a vital expression of leader responsibility, which is fully compatible with but goes far beyond honoring our accountabilities.[1] I also offer a few other research-based facts and reasons that argue for this approach to the practice of leadership and leader development:   

  1. Leader authenticity promotes trust, engagement, and performance, and it’s grounded in knowing who we are and cultivating more effective ways of being who we are.     
  2. How we express who we are as leaders must adaptively change as we take on new roles and face new challenges originating from within or without the organization.      
  3. Management must learn to look for and explicitly specify the indicated needs for adaptive change, the “learning curve” implied, and the expectations for leader development.  
  4. Over and above adaptive changes in role-based identity, the leaders must clarify and hone expression of their moral core as persons in order to inspire trust and confidence.       

As you can see, leader development thus conceived goes deeper than skills training. It does so in order to activate sources of meaning and motivation that move us forward and give us the reasons and the courage to persist in our efforts, even in the face of the adversity and setbacks we must expect along the way when navigating steep learning curves.

[1] I’ve written elsewhere about the difference between and complementarity of responsibility and accountability. In simple terms, the former is a principle-centered, value-based, self-authored core of beliefs that guide judgment and action from within (moral agency), whereas accountability concerns what we owe to others in virtue of our role and the fiduciary duties specified in our agreement to take the role and act in the interests of the organization.

3 Habits for Bolstering Engagement

Great things happen when we’re engaged

The three habits concern how we engage with others when real engagement is critical. They're habits that shape communicative interaction for purposes of gaining mutual understanding, all based on the belief that any other practical purposes we have in mind - alignment, conflict resolution, persuasion, or direction giving - benefit from openness to others, to their experience and views, which also engenders trust.  

The three habits are practiced ways of engaging, which might be regarded as EQ skills for everyday life. They are: 1) attending; 2) attuning; and 3) reflecting. Used with sincerity, appropriateness, and effectiveness, they transform the moment from one that is driven by past or future concerns to one that operates in the here-and-now. 

Attending – a gestalt perspective

I characterize the habits as "practiced ways of engaging."[1] Attending in this sense involves deliberate focus of our attentional gaze, also an attitude free of preoccupations with past or future. We are attentionally positioned to notice how others are acting, as well as the emotional tone of their verbal and nonverbal behaviors in the here-and-now. Attitudinally, we are curious and inclined to suspend judgement. We are noticing any regressive or progressive pulls that take us away from the dynamics and meaning of what we and others are experiencing right now as we discuss the matters at hand. 

It’s not that practical imperatives are devalued or that objectives must be dismissed. It’s just that these aims may be allowed to recede into the background, in order to shift our attentional and attitudinal stance to focus on the quality of engagement as needed. We may anticipate needs to “check in” on how others are feeling before the meeting begins(motivation, commitment, concerns, etc.), or such needs may spontaneously surface and call for our intervention in the natural course the meeting. In either case, we shift our focus from the formal agenda in order to pull here-and-now issues into the foreground. 

This attentional discipline works from a “gestalt” perspective, a more global awareness of interpersonal process. It’s grounded in a recognition that interaction occurs in a social field. The explicit topical focus of our meeting, at least ostensibly, claims center stage, foreground, in this meeting[2] (social field). But, there are also non-focal thoughts and feelings that operate in the background, less consciously at first, which make claims on us and may impede or otherwise affect our engagement with what’s in the foreground. When we notice background themes “boiling,” they should be “foregrounded.”

Attuning – actively empathizing

Attentional discipline enables us to notice interpersonal dynamics, not merely as an indifferent observer, but as a concerned and caring partner. We attune ourselves to others as persons, as minded creatures, each with their own concerns and viewpoints who experience the interaction from their own situated subjective center in the social field. We notice all of this from an attitude of curiosity, also with an active, empathic interpretation of what it means to him or her in the holistic scheme of their life. 

When the quality of our presence and engagement are sincere, others can tell. Even if we're not fully accurate, our imperfect effort and intent to understand them resonates as genuine concern. It conveys at least an approximate attunement, along with our sincere interest in improving our attunement. We strike them as being in earnest. They notice that we've seen and heard the less explicitly expressed background themes, and respect them enough to welcome them into the foreground. They believe we do this for good reasons; not only for the sake of practical outcomes, but to ensure their inclusion. 

The contributions made by our attentional focus and our active empathic attunement reveal authentic motivations to engage in a real way. Most people will “pick up” on the tone of this attitudinal/behavioral style. However, if we want to make this shift in the quality of engagement more explicit, and validate for ourselves and others that it is a reliable basis for trust, joint commitment, and collaboration in all the discussion and actions to follow, something else, the third habit, is needed, i.e., reflection. 

Reflection – specifying and validating understanding

We use the word reflection here in a double sense. First, it is a kind of instrumental action or strategy for validating the impressions and interpretations formed in the attunement phase. But unlike other kinds of strategy, it is informed in this case by the live, unfolding experience of the meeting. Second, it does prompt the sort of thoughtful pause and consideration we usually associate with reflection as a mode of mental activity. It is a reflection on the interaction, making certain themes explicit. 

A concrete example of reflection might help: “You seem a bit hesitant, but for a reason. Perhaps something just doesn’t seem clear, feel settled or right about this plan.” While my attentional focus may have enabled me to notice the background theme of hesitance, and while I may have slowed my pace, signaling my concern to avoid rushing them or dismissing their concern, now I make my impressions, hypotheses, and interpretations explicit in order to test them. I've probably based my interpretations more on nonverbal dynamics than anything specific he or she might have articulated. 

But now my reflection of undiscussed background issues, which might have blocked collaboration on imperatives in the foreground, are made explicit and available for examination. They're recognized as important matters to understand and to resolve. As these issues are taken seriously, foregrounded, and made explicit, those who bore them are affirmed. They and their concerns matter. They thereby learn to trust their feelings as “data” that signal a need for reflection in the second sense. 


These habits for boosting engagement require the conscious cultivation of skills for attending and discerning, attuning and interpreting, and reflecting and validating what often lies in the background and what is too often neglected. We thereby restructure the field of interaction to permit engagement of a kind that places us on solid footing for any other kind of practical communicative purposes, such as influence, decision making, alignment checking, and problem solving. 

Perhaps you'll regard the communicative action represented by the attending-attuning-reflection discipline a “soft skill.” Just remember, it is often in virtue of just this softer kind of skill, and the attitudinal shift it invokes, that harder skills of influence and overt action achieve efficacy. It only through heart-felt engagement that we do our best work, especially when the going gets tough. There nothing soft about that!


[1] Practiced ways of engagement are cultivated. They don’t just happen without a deliberate, mindful effort. We cultivate things in this way when they are important to us, just as we do, for example, in our moral life. It’s easier to simply indulge our self-interest, but realizing our capacity for kindness is what makes us fully human. 

[2] I use “meeting” to cover any planned or ad hoc interaction in which two or more persons to connect, align, and coordinate their actions. Even as we may temporarily suspend an action bias to attend to the relational dynamics of engagement, the ultimate purpose in doing so is to then resume a more robust course of joint purposive action.

Encouraging Emergent Leadership

emerging leaders.jpg

Whether you are a line manager, supervisor, or human resource development (HRD) professional, investing time and attention in the development of early-career professionals is one of the most important, high-return leadership actions you can take. So, why don't we do it more consistently? Many will say it's because of demands on their time. Some aren't sure what to do or how to do it.

In any case, my purpose here is to make this vital responsibility a bit easier to address. Let’s begin with an example. Then we’ll consider the why, what, and how elements of encouraging emergent leadership. I'll keep it simple (not simplistic) and focus on sure-win strategies because they get you in the game and yield the feedback that tells you if you’re moving the needle.

The Case of Brian

Off to a great start

Brian was recruited to the Mercy Medical Center when he was in his mid-twenties by a friend, Olivia, whom he met in a part-time MBA program. That was about 18 months ago, and he had proven to be a great addition to the supply chain department. He quickly took on some process issues that were instrumental to reducing inventory, a key improvement goal at Mercy.

Although his education was in accounting, he was put into an operations role in his first job out of college and really liked the energy, rapid pace, and problem solving aspects of the work. His action-oriented style was also appreciated at Mercy. But he discovered that there were differences, which presented challenges as he joined an interdisciplinary project team.

Supervisor gets feedback

Recently, his supervisor, Rebecca, had gotten feedback from Brian's team members in nursing and radiology that he seemed to “tune out” when discussion turned to the “patient experience.” His behavior seemed to say “Well, that’s your area, so let me know when you get it sorted out.” They were concerned that he lacked curiosity and concern for the large priorities of improving care.

Rebecca discussed the feedback with Brian. As she listened, it quickly became clear that Brian was actually much more interested than his colleagues knew, something his actions did not express. He kept his questions to himself, believing he would figure things out in time. Meanwhile, he saw no need to slow down the team process. Rebecca framed this interpretation as a hypothesis with Brian.

She then asked Brian, “What if I told you that you are responsible for letting others know what you are thinking, how you are feeling, and that you are trying to figure out how to contribute?” As he pondered this question, she added, "Why do you suppose colleagues might need to know these things about you? and "How might doing that actually enhance the team's process and progress?" Discussion ensued.

She and Brian talked about how different the mission and culture of Mercy was from that of his prior employer, a manufacturer of engineered products. Seldom were health outcomes and lives at stake there, but at Mercy these were always in consideration, they properly arose as the purpose in any improvement initiative and influenced most discussions.

Actionable development themes emerge

Brian quickly saw that he needed to voice his questions more often in order to learn and validate his learning about the clinical context and patient experience. Rebecca helped him see that by doing so he would rather naturally and authentically reveal his interest and motivation to learn—important things for his colleagues to know about him.

Brian came to see that his man-of-few-words approach to work was not a fit for his new role and for the mission and culture at Mercy. He needed to think out loud about how he was connecting the dots between the patient experience and the technical options for improving care. He began to see how interdependent their roles and contributions were—he saw the rationale for working as team.

With these themes in mind, Brian and Rebecca worked through some concrete examples of how he might approach interaction with his colleagues on the project team a bit differently. They discussed how he might acknowledge and build on the feedback they'd given his supervisor in order to open the door to more open dialogue and ongoing feedback. 

While Brian would never emerge as the most loquacious member of the team, he did increasingly contribute aligned acts of emergent leadership over the life of the team's work. And he did it largely by verbalizing his observations and questions. He was not attached to past ways of doing things, so his questions quite naturally stimulated innovation. His development spawned team development.

Why the focus on early-career professionals?

It's obvious upon reflection, but in the rush of the day we are not so reflective. So, let's take a moment to acknowledge the benefits of prioritizing developmental attention to early-career professionals:

  1. They are "sponges." Most are bright and will never be more amenable to adaptive learning.
  2. The way you evaluate their potential is to challenge it, see what they do with learning moments.
  3. The basics of leadership are generalizable—coach it well once, apply it elsewhere 100 times.
  4. Their naïveté can be a gift of fresh eyes, unencumbered by "best practices," open to innovation.
  5. When you express interest and encourage them, they're more likely speak up, assert initiative.
  6. There's little unlearning to do, and as they adopt and adapt ideas, you and others will learn, too.
  7. They are your future—if you can keep them, if you empower them, if you cultivate alignment.
  8. They will pay it forward as emergent leaders tomorrow, as positional leaders in the future. 

What should you focus on?

The simplest answer to this question is anything that promotes maturity and the capacity to lead and collaborate. Set the discussion in a context of task-oriented, goal-related action. This is the scene in which behaviors take on practical relevance. This is situated learning and development.

  • Scene. What happened and what is there to talk about? What must we "problematize"? [1]
  • Meaning. How did I/we construe facts, intentions, issues, options, and what's at stake?
  • Actions. What did I/we do and why? How did it play out? How did others react? Effects?
  • Do-overs. Given what I/we know now, how might I/we have interpreted/acted differently?
  • Take-aways. Development opportunities: knowledge/skills, self-regulation, communications.
  • Next steps. Action plans, opportunities to practice, and sources of feedback & measurement.

Concluding Thoughts

Taking time for developmental interventions with early-career professionals does not need to take a lot of your time. Moreover, it becomes easier and more efficient with practice. Most important, these conversations can be very empowering and growth-producing for the early-career professional.


[1] Problematization is a kind of critical thinking and dialogue used to examine the concrete aspects of a presenting situation, the parties involved, and the dynamics of interaction. It highlights and reframes challenges in ways that invite transformative action. We suspend reactive, habitual, taken-for-granted attitudes, posing the situation as problematic. This reflective stance invites consideration of new viewpoints, raises self-other awareness, and generates hope. This qualitative shift in thought, feeling, and relating to others allows new pathways of action to emerge.

Can there really be too much IQ?

The Curvilinear Effect of IQ on Leader

Some of the first empirical support for a curvilinear relationship between IQ and perceived leader effectiveness has just been published.*

We’ve known for some time that there’s a positive, linear association between IQ and leadership outcomes. That's why, cognitive ability testing has been a core element in selection procedures. Some have also theorized that there a “ceiling effect” on the impact of IQ as a predictor of success. That is, after a certain level IQ ceases to distinguish who is most successful or effective.

Now, with this new research, we have evidence to support the thesis that too much IQ can actually be a detractor. Beyond a certain point, increases in IQ may manifest in behavior that others perceive as less favorable. The "super smart" may think and speak in ways that seem to make things more complex than they need to be, creating more confusion than focus. These behaviors may even suggest an air of aloofness to some.

In any case, we are reminded that general intelligence or IQ – which is not the same as practical savvy or wisdom – is not enough on its own. Practical judgment and EQ are also vital parts of a leader’s overall capacity to be effective. Therefore, we must find ways to observe and appraise both kinds of intelligence when we are evaluating the potential or fit of a candidate for a bigger role in executive leadership.

* Source:

  1. Antonakis, J. et al, in press. "Can Super Smart Leaders Suffer From Too Much of a Good Thing? The Curvilinear Effect of Intelligence on Perceived Leadership Behavior." Journal of Applied Psychology, March 2017.