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Fight Or Flight: Are Senior Leaders Equipped To Handle Employee Conflicts?


Being a business leader involves facing numerous challenges head-on and dealing with situations which may be uncomfortable. Not least of these is employees who are butting heads and are having conflict with one another. These tensions can cause aftershocks that ripple through the workplace.

Research from Acas found that employee conflict costs UK businesses a total of £28.5 billion annually. Leadership development and coaching specialists FirstHuman are sharing their thoughts on how senior leaders must dig deep to address workplace conflict.

Richard Atherton, a partner at FirstHuman, said: “The foundational skill in tackling conflict is listening. If the leader can tune in to their internal monologue about the situation, they allow themselves to genuinely listen to people’s grievances.

If a leader is unconsciously triggered by one or more of the participants, or the situation itself, their mind will be filled with their own stories about the scenario. If this is the case, they can’t be fully present, and their ability to resolve the conflict will be compromised.

“Senior leaders must first place how they deal with conflict under a microscope and consider how this can help or hinder the workplace.”

When working with clients, we encourage them to ask themselves, am I in a pattern here? When did I first start using this pattern? Could I experiment with a different way of being here?

Senior leaders must first place how they deal with conflict under a microscope and consider how this can help or hinder the workplace. On the surface, people fit into two camps of either fighters or flighters, i.e. people who tackle a potentially threatening situation or those who flee from it. Whilst the reasons for these two different reactions can be complex, addressing which side they identify with the most can help senior leaders deal with conflict between two employees in the workplace.

Conflict can arise from personality clashes, differing working styles, managerial relationships, or unshared opinions, motivations, and goals, making it difficult to find a one-size-fits-all solution. If a senior leader is a fighter, this may lead to them rushing in to defend one of the employees without knowing the details of the situation, for example. Equally, fleeing from the problem and hoping that the two employees will come to a harmonious solution amongst themselves is unrealistic.

In this context, leaders need to step back and reflect on their habitualised reactions to conflict. Even better is to trace these reactions back to when they first employed them, often early in their lives. If leaders can identify their go-to responses, they can begin to give themselves choices in the moment.

Finding a good mentor or a coach, or simply making space to reflect or journal on the situation, can be the key to improving in this area. Again, critical questions to explore are: am I getting hooked? What’s my story about all of this? What’s my story about this person or that person?

Richard concludes: “By catching themselves in their internal dialogue, letting that go, then tuning in to what’s going on ‘underneath the underneath’ for the other person, they can listen deeply to people. Not only does this free the leader in exploring more possible resolutions, but when people feel truly listened to and acknowledged, they often gain a new perspective on the conflict”.

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