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Conflict is Necessary for Effective Municipal Leadership

Conflict is Necessary for Effective Municipal Leadership

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By Buster Nicholson, Public Sector Outreach at American Public University

Personality types have an inescapable effect on how a person interacts with the world. In sociological circles, some of these personality labels can get complicated (Myers-Briggs identifies 16!). As someone in a municipal leadership role, knowing your personality type will give you insight on how to manage individuals and situations as you grow to understand your strengths and weaknesses.

In his article, “3 Ways to Lead Whilst Being Isolated,” Benjamin Laker presents three tools that one can use to build a resilient, collaborative team. He advocates using this most recent “pause” in our normal work conditions during the coronavirus pandemic to reflect on how leaders can, and should, view staff relations with a fresh perspective. His insight is valuable in that it focuses on soft skills that a municipal leader needs to master in order to address debilitating behaviors with office politics.

Municipal Leaders Must Embrace Conflict

The term “conflict” often has a negative connotation, however, the opposite is true. Conflict is what refines and pushes people to be their best because effectively addressing and resolving challenging situations requires tenacity and fortitude. When addressing challenging issues, knowing your personality type can save you from a lot of frustration. For example, do you tackle employee issues head on, or wait quietly for them to dissipate? When an employee complains about a coworker’s performance, do you get the other side of the story and draw a conclusion without all points of view? Your personality type will dictate how you answer these questions.

3 Ways To Lead Effectively Through Conflict

Looking at the three ways to lead through the lens of conflict can allow you to grow and establish an environment of mutual respect and dignity with your team.

  1. No Triangles – The author uses the triangle as a diagram denoting the all-too-common office practice of disrespecting peers, supervisors, or employees by failing to address an individual directly concerning a perceived issue. All of us have experienced an employee who uses the triangle for self-gain. These individuals will not talk to someone directly about an issue because they want to avoid conflict. As a municipal supervisor, I have had employees come into my office to voice concerns about coworkers. I would simply ask them some thought-provoking questions and then suggest that he/she speak to the opposing coworker to resolve the issue. My next step was to inform them that if this initial step was unsuccessful, I would be happy to mediate a conflict-resolution meeting. Nine times out of ten, I wouldn’t see them in my office again. Resist the temptation to be a savior and “solve” that individual’s problem at the expense of another. Be evenhanded and fair to all parties by listening to both sides before taking action.
  2. Manage Your Bacon Wars –I’m really not sure how I feel about the name of this particular tool, but the existence of rivalries in the workplace is real. Sometimes individuals and groups can grow suspicious of the other’s motives (“He cooked the bacon crispy on purpose. I wanted it soft, and he knew it!”). As a leader, you must establish ground rules early, which will undoubtedly result in conflict as you gently, but resolutely, reinforce expectations amongst staff. The most important rule of a healthy and productive office environment is mutual respect. Do not allow the triangle to exist, and be vocal about it. Encourage active listening among your employees. Have a communication plan in place that includes conflict-resolution strategies. All of these worthwhile institutional ideas take work to establish, and many times that work involves constructive conflict on the behalf of leadership.
  3. Respect Trumps Harmony – I couldn’t agree more. The author has pinpointed a glaring weakness of many supervisors in leadership positions. It’s safe to say that many people have worked for an individual who could be described as “wishy-washy” or just plain indecisive. I have worked for an individual who was a master at conflict avoidance. His deliberate unwillingness to face issues head-on resulted in a tremendous amount of wasted time and disillusionment on the part of the staff as he tried to outwardly be all things to all people, which actually made him a negative force within the organization. I considered his behavior disrespectful of the employees’ time, and it led to a very disharmonious and dysfunctional work environment. Be decisive, forthcoming, and respectful. It’s a winning combination!

I agree with the author’s proposal to use this time of isolation to reflect on and develop a fresh outlook on employee relations.

When you return to the office, resolve yourself to be better at addressing conflict as you take the lead in creating a more transparent municipal landscape. Lead by example through an outward showing of respect for the individual and the governing institution, be firm on your expectation that all workers will go directly to the source when resolving conflict, and listen actively to every issue as you try to see conflict from all points of view.

conflictAbout the Author: Buster Nicholson is a senior manager of Public Sector Outreach at American Public University. He has a Master’s degree in Public Administration and has worked as a public school teacher, an analyst for the United States Secret Service, a town administrator, and a director of public works. At APU, he works with directors, senior managers, and staff from state and local government entities to facilitate leadership growth through education and professional development. You can reach him at ANicholson@apus.edu.

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