This blog is about working through conflict in a deliberate and purposeful way. The word conflict derives from the Latin word conflictus which means to ‘strike together’. This ‘striking together’ has had me thinking differently about one of the most frequent reasons people call the SLSG. I am not a lawyer so my worldview on the topic of conflict might feel like a drastic departure for some of you. As an Integral Master CoachTM certified at the professional level with the International Coach Federation, I view conflict as a natural byproduct of people working together. To contend, fight, struggle alongside someone whose perspective is different than their own is part of the human experience. For centuries conflicts have been the reason we have gone to war, divided assets, lost opportunities, and left relationships. Conflict has also created the necessary tension that has broken open our assumptive worlds, shattered glass ceilings, stimulated growth and has given rise to innovations. Conflict is to be expected and welcomed. It is the necessary ingredient through which growth, change and new possibilities emerge. It unlocks potential and gives rise to a ‘third way’ … beyond the field of your way or my way, there is a dream of what might be possible called the ‘third way’ … as the poet Rumi beckons … ‘I’ll meet you there’.
Nearly a decade ago, I wrote a briefing document for a client on ethical stewardship and what it might mean for sport if we, the stewards, were to intentionally lead from a purposeful mindset. The notion that sport organizations might lead and govern in a manner that seeks the best interests of stakeholders by creating high trust cultures is even more appealing given today’s context. In his seminal book about stewardship, author Peter Block defines organizational stewards as those people who are “accountable for the wellbeing of the larger organization by operating in service, rather than in control, of the members of the organization.” Service, trust, credibility, and vision (or what might once have been relegated to the ‘domain of soft skills’) are increasingly becoming foundational leadership traits or the metaskills required to maintain relevance in the 21st Century.
So how might stewards hold conflict?
It seems to me that the language stewards might use to address conflict would be less legalistic and more oriented towards people’s values, motivations, and desired outcomes. They would be informed by what we must do (legal framework) but not stop there. Stewards would then be inspired to ask, what ‘ought we do’ as they consider their organization’s values and the issues that stand in the way or give rise to the conflict. From experience, the way we hold conflict is rooted at a deeply personal level, informed by our beliefs, values, and behavioral preferences. Once we increase self-awareness of these fundamentals, it becomes simpler, not necessarily easier, to work through the conflict that arises within, so that we can better navigate the turbulent waters that divide us from others. Stewards view conflict as a natural occurrence within organizations which typically arises when people’s values clash, when communications has ceased, and when trust levels are low. But not always. Sometimes conflict is as a simple as ‘I see this differently than you do’. Stewards approach each situation with an open mind, a compassionate heart, and a belief that the issues that get in the way can be resolved when people are willing to listen to understand, flex curiosity muscles, and be willing to explore new alternatives.
One of the gifts of being part of the SLSG is our desire to practice ‘kaizen’ or continuous improvement. This keeps us relevant and helps to ensure that we are using latest thinking to help sport leaders solve problems. One way of thinking about conflict is to consider the Thomas-Kilmann approach to resolving conflict. You can access a free sample of the tool here. Doing this assessment can help you understand your natural and preferred way of working through conflict. According to the researchers, there are two underlying dimensions of human behavior (assertiveness and cooperativeness) that can be used to define five different modes of responding to conflict. While each of us can use all five, chances are we default to one or two preferred modes. My view is that leaders need to become adept at all styles and to deploy the best option that best meets each situation:
- Competing: Assertive and uncooperative, this way of responding to conflict pursues the individual’s own interest, at the expense of the other. It’s a power-oriented approach to winning, achieving a certain result, or standing up for something. People in positions of power are increasingly being held to task when the competing approach is not necessarily needed.
- Accommodating: Unassertive and cooperative, this way of responding to conflict is the opposite of competing. People often neglect their own needs to satisfy the concerns of the other person and might take the form of selfless generosity, obeying orders when you’d prefer not to, or yielding to other’s points of view. Often people get labelled as doormats and we see patterns of passive-aggressiveness that are unhelpful and can lead to further conflict.
- Avoiding: Unassertive and uncooperative, this way of responding to conflict might be considered burying your head in the sand, in the hopes that this too shall pass. By avoiding what is creating conflict, they attempt to diplomatically sidestep over the issue, postpone until a better time arises, or simply withdraw from the perceived threatening situation. From experience, what gets avoided, gets worse.
- Compromising: Moderate in both assertiveness and cooperativeness, this way of responding to conflict is about finding the most expedient, mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both parties. It falls somewhere between competing and accommodating. This person will give up more than competing but less than accommodating. While it addressed an issue more directly than avoiding, it does not explore it in as much depth as collaborating. In some situations, compromising might mean splitting the difference, meeting in the middle, or exchanging concessions. The danger is that this mode can become overused, leading to partial solutions and outcomes.
- Collaborating: Deploying both assertive and cooperative skills, this way of responding to conflict is the complete opposite of avoiding. This approach involves an attempt to work with others towards a solution that satisfies all concerns and aspirations. It requires an openness of spirit to dig into an issue that surfaces underlying needs and values of those in conflict. It benefits from a learning mindset and there is full permission to explore each other’s perspectives with a view of finding a ‘third way’ solution.
I’ll be doing a follow-up blog on additional ways the SLSG team is supporting clients in navigating conflict and I hope that it will help stimulate self-reflection and sparks an interest in exploring alternative methods. You can also view some additional resources published by the SLSG about sterwarding conflict by visiting our online store. If you want to chat about the above, please drop me a line at DBL@sportlaw.ca
 Block, P. (1995). Stewardship. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.