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Published on: HR Coaching & Mentoring

Impact of Stress and Conflict on Leadership Approach

We all know that dealing with a stressful situation can take its toll on our wellbeing, so what is good leadership in difficult situations? When things are going well, we access our own natural leadership style that our friends and colleagues see and experience.  When conflict or stress occurs this often changes our behaviour, sometimes dramatically.

Understanding how both stress and conflict can affect the way we interact individually and as a part of a group can help us to understand how stress ultimately affects our wellbeing.  Our awareness of this can give us enough context, ways to manage interactions and reduce the impact that the stressful situation has on our personal wellbeing, in a conscious and proactive way.

A natural approach happens when things are going well

Let’s consider the following example: imagine you are about to attend a meeting with a team you’ve been leading for the last few months on a project. Everyone has supported each other and worked hard together to produce a report, resulting in a set of recommendations to the Board.  The meeting signifies the end of that process, so you had originally planned to go to that meeting with a certain outcome in mind – celebration.

Relationship Awareness Theory suggests that even when the purpose is still the same (e.g. celebration), we will probably still approach that meeting differently. Our own unique perspective will be a blend of these three specific filters, which are a great list of leadership skills:

  • People — the drive to help and develop others
  • Process — the drive to establish clear and meaningful order
  • Performance — the drive that directs action and achieves results

Depending on the balance of these key leadership skills, your approach and leadership style might differ the day of the meeting. Your approach could be to thank and celebrate the team’s contribution and efforts (People), reward the approach and the quality of the work they achieved (Process) or celebrate the end result (Performance), which all display key strengths of a leader.

As leaders, we instinctively know that we should probably cover all three areas, but we often default, naturally, to one filter first. We then need to consciously access and engage the other filters, to ensure that each of the other perspectives is addressed.

Our approach shifts when stress or conflict occurs

When things become challenging, when we are stressed, or conflict occurs, our leadership behaviours often change. Sometimes this change is minute and other times it is drastic.

Imagine again that before you enter the meeting, you get a phone call from the Board. They say that they are not happy with the results and it needs to be reworked immediately, which will be very challenging and no doubt difficult to deliver. This is devastating.  After all of your efforts, you need to shift the focus of the team meeting to make this happen instead.
What do you think about initially? How would you personally respond to this happening? How would it affect the leadership behaviours you display to your team?
Again, Relationship Awareness Theory suggests each of the filters we apply, changes our behaviour. These basic leadership skills consist of:

  • Accommodate (People) – how can I get everyone involved with this new challenge?
  • Analyse (Process) – how can we evaluate what the Board has said and what is needed?
  • Assert (Performance) – how can I meet the deadline and who can help me deliver this?

However, how each of us responds to stress and conflict differs from person to person, adding further complexity to this subject. Someone with a predominantly people-focused filter will not necessarily revert to ‘Accommodate’ behaviours when they are experiencing conflict.  Instead, every one of us has a unique conflict sequence we use to navigate through stress and conflict, back to the place we feel most natural and comfortable.

This is why some people appear to act ‘out of character’ when experiencing stress, while others seem to become more extreme versions of their natural style. Although some people don’t appear to outwardly change their behaviour at all and others have no idea that they’re stressed.

Being conscious of this and understanding how to adjust your approach and behaviour towards others is key to managing conflict effectively, enabling you to mitigate the effects of stress on employee wellbeing.

Managing Conflict Consciously

Below are three insightful ways to consciously manage conflict and stress and are certainly key leadership skills. Practising each of these will help you to be a more effective leader and safeguard your personal wellbeing:

  • Welcome opposition. Having an awareness that people are applying a range of filters to the situation and these will not always be aligned to yours can be very beneficial. Accepting the importance of each perspective and encouraging these differences will provide the opportunity for better ideas to emerge. It might even avoid deeper conflict from occurring that could impact your, or your team’s, own stress and wellbeing, which could reduce the effectiveness of the team as a whole.
  • Don’t enable conflict. While different perspectives should always be welcomed, disagreement can result in a deeper conflict, which is more stressful and is when people feel that their values are being undermined and disregarded. You might have a deep desire to get results quickly (a high functioning version of the Performance filter), while others in your team might aim for method and accuracy (the Process filter) or are deeply concerned about the team’s harmony (the People filter). To prevent conflict, we need to understand the motives and values of those around us, while respecting these concerns. Ensure individuals are given the opportunity to apply their own filter to the situation, combing each filter and working towards a group approach.
  • Don’t take it personally. One of the best ways to manage your personal response to disagreement and conflict is to see other people’s behaviour through the lens of positive intent. For example, when a colleague becomes critical, is it really an attack on you or just their way of working towards a better idea and outcome, in alliance with their own world filters and ideas surrounding leadership?

If you want to learn more about strengths-based coaching and leadership in the workplace, contact us today, to learn more about our services.

Gemma Bullivant is an Executive Coach at ECC, and accredited Core Strengths Practitioner, a strengths-based tool grounded in Relationship Awareness Theory, and designed to improve relationships, team effectiveness and individual performance.

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