Resolving Conflict with Your Leader

I work a lot with teenagers. It’s somewhat cliché now, but there is a really interesting world that a teenager finds themselves in. They’re not quite adults with the power to make the decisions that will shape their own world, and at the same time they’re not children and therefore expected to make decisions that will shape their own world. It’s a crazy, confusing, brilliant “in between” time. Not surprisingly, they often find themselves caught between two very different worlds: the IDEAL world and the REAL world. As any adult knows, the real world doesn’t often makes sense. However, it is reality and therefore the world we’re forced to contend with. In situations where these teenagers are unhappy with the way the world is functioning, or set up, or is regarding them, I often give them this very important piece of advice:

Work from the system you’re in.

This may sound unimaginative or void of passion, but it’s actually the opposite. We need to always strive for the ideal. The Ideal world is wonderful. That’s why it’s ideal. However, despite what often teenagers think, the world doesn’t revolve around us. Believe me, you don’t want it to, even if it could. We’re part of interconnected lives, of systems, and of community. When we’re dealing with things that are going contrary to our expectations, we have to first acknowledge the system we find ourselves in. This isn’t always fair or healthy or even rational, but it’s reality. To change the system, you must work within the system. Without that, you have no credibility. Without credibility, you are empty words and vain actions.

Now, before I get hate mail from the revolutionists of the world (in which I am one), let’s turn this subject to a less grandiose example. What if you find yourself in conflict with your boss or person above you? This is a situation that no one wants to find themselves in. It’s often a situation that just cannot be left alone, but must find resolution. So, when finding yourself in conflict with someone who is, at least structurally, not your equal, what do you do?

1. Know the system, structurally.

Go back to the advice I give teenagers: First, you need to know the system you’re in. Is there a procedure either written or most likely unwritten about handling conflict in general in your office? What is socially acceptable? Is there a way that your boss has said he/she likes to handle disagreements or conflict? If there is a documented way that conflict is handled that matches up with what actually takes place in the office then you want to follow those procedures. Leaders, for the most part, respect people who stay in their lane. This will give you credibility and help prevent the appearance of being needlessly troublesome.

2. Know the leader, personally.

Every leader is a little different. There is no formula for resolving conflict . . . ever. There are a million books that outline the characteristics of a dynamic boss, and ideally all leaders would follow these tried-and-true axioms. However, as we just mentioned, we live in the real world which often doesn’t resemble the ideal world. What does your boss respond to? Do they need the apology? Do they need results? Do they need a one down approach? Do they need things explained in detail? Or do they need things bullet-pointed and brief? The bottom line is regardless of how things should be, this individual holds a higher position than you. You are not equal and therefore cannot approach the situation as an equal.

3. Know the conflict, logistically.

What is the conflict actually about? Is it misunderstandings? Is it missed expectations between you and your boss? Is it an emotional conflict like hurt feelings or anger? Each of these conflicts will be handled differently. If it’s an emotional conflict, you need to speak to those emotions. You need to validate the feelings of your boss. Validation doesn’t mean agreeing with their reason for the emotions, but simply that the emotions are real. If it’s a misunderstanding then try to talk in logistics rather than perception or blame. Talking in terms of whose fault it is or who’s right or wrong will only create an adversarial context and resolution will be hard to find. If it’s a matter of differing values, acknowledge the boss’ positional authority while explaining why you hold a different value.

4. Know yourself, critically.

Most of all, you need to know yourself. What is motivating your desire for conflict resolution? Is it fearing that you might lose your job or take a hit professionally? Is it anxiety of not being liked or respected? Is it insecurity of how this conflict may cause you to appear? Each of these can create a reactive stance when handling conflict. Most of us have some sort of insecurity or anxiety when conflict arises. You just want to make sure that it’s not motivating your decision because your motive often dictates the actions you choose. Each of these things is fueled by a sense of threat. When we feel threatened we tend to step outside of our character. It is very difficult to resolve conflict in a healthy way when we are not functioning out of character.

When processing these things, you may find that you’re working in a toxic environment or working for a toxic leader. These situations are difficult to resolve. Despite your best efforts, resolution may not be possible. However, for your own health and your own character it’s important, whenever possible, to pursue conflict resolution. When we don’t, often it will stay bottled up inside and fester into cynicism, disrespect, and/or apathy. Although there is no formula for obtaining conflict resolution, considering these four factors can help you get a little closer to bridging the gap between you and your boss.