This blog post is adapted from “The Elephant in the Boardroom: How Leaders Use and Manage Conflict to Reach Greater Levels of Success,” (Career Press, 2015) by Edgar Papke. Papke is a leadership psychologist and coach, author, and award-winning speaker.
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To be truly effective as a leader begins with accepting the responsibility for spotting and confronting the elephants in the room — the conflicts that get in the way of success.
When all is said and done, you are fundamentally responsible for bringing attention to the conflicts that can block performance and, at the same time, offer opportunities for the open and constructive exchange of ideas and thinking that results in higher levels of performance. Not confronting dysfunctional conflict only weakens your influence as a leader. Further, by accommodating this behavior, you enable others to engage in the dysfunctional and destructive actions that accompanies it.
As a leader, you are expected and required to constructively face the many conflicts that will naturally exist in your organization or team. Further, to be effective you not only have to respond to the conflicts and issues at hand, you also have to actively look for, identify, and uncover the hidden and avoided conflicts. Ultimately, this is what you will be judged for.
Accepting responsibility to confront conflict will add to your influence in several ways. I have found that openness, confidence, and courage are three essential traits for leaders when confronting conflict:
Openness. By spotting and confronting elephants, you demonstrate your commitment to one of the more powerful core values that we all share. As a leader, you will be tested on this more than any other value. You are expected to openly and honestly express what you think, see, and feel. Though it is obvious that not everyone will always agree with your truth or perspective, the important aspect to remember is that, as leader, people will want to hear your truth and will appreciate your commitment to honesty. We all recognize that it takes courage to be honest. Our shared knowledge of the fear associated with being honest is key to our understanding the value it brings to trusting one another. As formidable as the fear is, it stands to reason that the honesty to confront it is that much more powerful.
Our experience is that leaders often shy away from expressing themselves honestly — so much so that we have become suspicious, expecting them to lie. More often than not, criticism of how leaders communicate is not focused on competency; rather, it is centered on the lack of transparency. Sadly, we have become too accepting of leaders who lie, withhold the truth, or win our favor through exaggeration. In a world where we critique every action and every word, the truth is that leaders who commit to honesty are rare and, for that reason, are considered even more extraordinary. This is to your advantage.
Confidence. Leaders that are responsible in confronting conflict gain not only confidence in themselves, but also that of others. We admire individuals who are willing to tell the truth and point out the elephant in the room. Often, when no one is else is willing to do it, the first person that is brave and confident enough to confront the situation gains the influence to become the leader. Eventually, we have confidence that the leader will act when we need him or her to.
One of the keys to taking action is knowing when to act. Often, leaders shy away from confrontation because they aren’t sure of saying the right things or having the right solution. It is more important to show integrity by telling others that, though you don’t have a solution to the problem at hand, you intend to simply bring attention to the issue. Doing so also encourages others to engage in the conversation.
When spotting elephants, it is vital to keep in mind that even if you don’t have a solution or you misstep in communicating your truth, you will still be delivering on your responsibility to face the most difficult of situations. By doing so, you will learn how to manage difficult circumstances better and add to your own confidence. If you don’t get it right the first time, the big payoff is that you can use the experience to learn and grow. Also, being consistently honest and responsible about an uncertain resulting action or outcome will inspire the confidence of others. Your predictability will make them feel safe in times of great anxiety and fear.
Keep in mind that leadership is an art. Like any art form, it requires taking risks and getting better through practice. Although it may be difficult at first, with time you’ll find that committing to spotting elephants and truthfully confronting the conflicts they represent is the key to your success as a leader.
Courage. Great leaders are the role models of courage. By spotting and confronting elephants, they set the expectation that others will do the same. Further, if you do it well, others will learn from observing you and follow your lead. They, too, will then want to show courage.
We often see great leadership as the ability to solve problems. No doubt this is an important characteristic of successful leaders. I suggest that even more important is the ability to spot the opportunities that, when leveraged, provide for the possibility to confront a problem and address it in a manner that leads to higher levels of performance. Such role modeling gives others examples of the variety of outcomes that spotting elephants can present. It provides the means through which they can explore the virtually endless forms of personal, team, and organizational performance that can be attained.
Role modeling courage and a commitment to honesty evoke traits and characteristics of great leadership and inspire others in spotting the elephants. Among these traits are ownership, conscientiousness, continuous learning, curiosity, and the pursuit of self-knowledge. All of these are positive examples of the outcomes of confronting and leveraging conflict. For those who want to become leaders, your role modeling will encourage them to learn and practice being more courageous, creative, and responsible. In the end, they too will become role models.
Lastly, great leadership that role models how to spot elephants is likely the most powerful and important influence on the culture of organizations, teams, and communities.