In a meeting recently I realized how most of us shy away from things that make us uncomfortable or create any kind of conflict. We look for ease and comfort rather than adversity. However, and maybe ironically, challenges, adversity and difficult situations tend to bring out the best in us, allow us to grow and get better and stronger. I thought about this a little bit and remembered several instances when I observed leaders use conflict, difficult challenges and adversity to their advantage. They seemed to be comfortable being uncomfortable and they were striving in uncertainty.
The first behavior is a focus on task-based conflict. I have observed effective leaders differentiate between emotional and task-based conflict. Obviously, emotional conflict is a non-starter and usually has the habit of spiraling out of control. They rather focus on “asking questions” and encouraging others to think about different or opposite points of views. This may feel uncomfortable at times; especially in circumstances when someone just presented an excellent idea and you ask someone else to challenge it, but may be extremely beneficial in drawing out important information. To me task-based conflict is not about winning an argument or playing the proverbial devil's advocate, but rather a genuine and thoughtful process to challenge each other to think outside the box and have a constructive dialogue.
Secondly, strong leaders don't "lead with an idea", which relates directly to task-based conflict. They rather emphasize the engagement of everyone in the process – a focus on process leadership. Not too long ago I observed a leader doing this extremely well. While I am certain that she already had a very strong opinion and perspective about the issue at hand, she did not express her point of view at the start but rather engaged her team in a well-structured process to have everyone's input. Questions she asked for example include: Tell me the 3 things you like and don't like about this? What can go wrong here? Can we talk about the assumptions again and why they make sense? To a specific team member: I have not heard your perspective on this, anything you are worried about? And the list goes on. She focused on the process not the outcome or idea. She kept an open mind and was willing to change her original point of view. This is hard, may take a little more time and could create uncertainty. However, there is not only the benefit of drawing out better information and different perspectives before making a decision, but this process also avoids group-think and engages everyone, which nurtures inclusion and a sense of belonging.
The third habit is about continuously focusing on resilience. When the best leaders encounter a novel, unexpected, and rapidly changing environment, they have the ability to demonstrate strong "sense-making", which is critically important. As such, resilient leadership gives structure to the unknown and turns ongoing complexity into a situation that is comprehensible and serves as a springboard into action. Resilient leaders give people the confidence and courage to adapt and adjust to changing circumstances – even with incomplete information. Basically, they create an environment of comfort in uncertainty. I am not sure if resilient leadership can be taught or if it is solely shaped by experiences over time. A lot of it is anchored in analytics, communications and systems thinking, which certainly can be learned. A colleague of mine just recently demonstrated this behavior really well when he encountered a complex situation. He began by breaking the issue down in smaller parts to assess the specifics and encouraged his team by asking them what problem can be solved next. He did this in a calm, structured, agile and courageous manner, allowing everyone to operate with efficiency.
Embracing resilience, process leadership and task-based conflict may allow us to get more "comfortably uncomfortable". If we get too comfortable at times, remembering these behaviors can make all the difference. Let's remember them and nudge everyone – and most importantly ourselves – to get more comfortable with adversity! To quote Titus Livy: "We survive on adversity and perish in ease and comfort".