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How To Navigate Conflict

Amy Gallo Headshot
Stephanie Alvarez Ewens
Women are expected to be peacemakers—and that can be a terrific strength, notes author Amy Gallo. But to be a great leader, you also need to get comfortable with disagreement and learn to ‘facilitate difficult conversations.’

Workplace expert Amy Gallo isn’t sentimental about society’s view of women as inherently collaborative. But she does see the ability to navigate conflict as a critical skill for women leaders, in particular.

The author of How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People) and the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict will be a speaker at our first Women in Leadership online discussion of 2024, Navigating Conflict in the Workplace, on April 30 (join us!). She spoke with us before then about perceptions of conflict in the workplace, how they affect women leaders—and the best steps for getting “comfortable with conflict.”

There’s been news lately about the rise in workplace conflict. Feuding coworkers make up half of all grievances raised in the workplace. It’s a contentious time, certainly politically. Why do you think that’s happening?

Is there an actual rise in disagreements, or is there a rise in the perception of disagreements?

One of the things that I’ve certainly seen, not just in the U.S. but elsewhere, too, is that given the broader cultural context, the political environment, we now think of disagreements and conflicts as really bad. They can separate families; they can lead to huge fights.

We have people saying, “This violates my values, that violates my principles.” But the truth is, we disagree with people all day long. When I show up to the coffee shop, the person who shows up at the same time, we disagree about who’s turn it is and then we sort it out. It doesn’t become a big thing necessarily, and I think the issue is that we are so sensitive to disagreements now, and so avoidant of them, because we do think they lead to such bad consequences.

The stakes have gotten really high.

Exactly. And so we feel like, if I have this disagreement, this person will never speak to me again. I won’t be able to work with them if we don’t see eye to eye on this. But conflict and disagreements are normal. They’re part of interacting with other humans and they’re a critical part of doing work, especially when you think about folks at the senior-most level of an organization.

If they all saw eye to eye all the time, chances are that would not be an innovative organization. They wouldn’t get a lot done. They would not be producing the best products or ideas, and they wouldn’t be delivering for their clients or customers.

So, we need to be able to get more comfortable with conflict and we need the skills. This is the thing I feel most passionately about: We need the skills to restore sanity to the way that we navigate conflicts and disagreements at work.

Is this a different issue for women than it is for men? It’s a little more loaded, right?

Yes, absolutely. One of the things that comes up for women is that the stereotypes about how we are expected to interact at work are pretty strong. And research has shown this. We are not supposed to be assertive. We are not supposed to be focused on ourselves and our own needs. We’re supposed to be collective and focused. We’re supposed to be relational, and warm.

It’s about expectations.

And the reality is, most women aren’t necessarily those things. We’ve been socialized, but it’s not a given that that’s your natural instinct or natural approach to conversation.

There’s this narrow range of acceptable behavior when it comes to women and difficult conversations or disagreements. We’re supposed to placate. We’re supposed to use emotional intelligence skills to smooth things over. And when we don’t do that, when we advocate for ourselves, when we say something very directly, when we display our competence or expertise, we tend to be penalized for doing so.

So, there’s this complicated logic that we have to go through of how do I feel about this situation? What’s the best way to approach it, and then what am I allowed to do in this situation?

It’s a very complicated calculation, all of which you’re doing while you’re under stress, because most often these situations cause us stress. It’s exhaustive, the mental gymnastics that we have to go through.

Is there good news there?

If there’s any good news coming out of that depressing research, it’s that the things that work well for women, that are imperative for women to do to navigate those biases, are actually things that would be good for anyone of any gender to do, which is to both advocate on behalf of others as well as for yourself.

Competence and warmth are not a trade-off; it’s helpful to have both of those things at the same time. Anyone who behaved that way would have an easier time navigating conflicts or difficult conversations. The reality is that it’s just more imperative for women to do it than it is for men.

One of the stereotypes of women is that they’re more collaborative. Do you think there’s any truth to that?

We’re certainly socialized to be more collaborative. But it doesn’t come naturally to every woman, and I think when we have that expectation it’s problematic. The problem is those who don’t meet that expectation, either because they don’t want to or they don’t have the skills for it—maybe they’re neurodivergent, and that’s not a strength for them—then they’re penalized for not doing that. That’s the risk.

I will say, and my experience and research does back this up, that women do tend to have higher social intelligence.

Yes, there’s lots of data on that.

Women tend to have emotional intelligence skills around self-awareness especially, partly because of the fact the workplace wasn’t built for us and so we really have to use that awareness to navigate what’s going on.

Again, not all women will have a spike in those skills, but the extra work that we have to do to navigate bias on top of all of the typical issues in the workplace that does give us those greater EQ skills.

Personally, I love collaboration. I love being the facilitator and bringing people together and getting everyone on the same page and getting us focused on a common goal. But I wouldn’t want anyone to expect I do that simply because I’m a woman. I want them to value it because I’m good at it and it’s something I enjoy doing.

So how do we get there?

I think the important thing to remember about gender bias is that we all have the bias. We’re in a culture where we’re being rained on by sexist thoughts and beliefs. So, of course, I hold the same biases that my male counterparts do.

I may interrogate them a little more closely, I may challenge them, but I’m still taught them.

How do you think these challenges make it harder for women to lead and get promoted?  Talk about conflict and how women are perceived in that context.

One of the things that sets leaders apart, good leaders, is the ability to navigate conflict and facilitate difficult conversations. To help people on a team, in an organization or in a unit have different opinions, different ideas, different agendas and then help them move through that to a conclusion, a goal or a target—that’s an imperative skill.

The challenge is that we don’t actually believe women are good at that because it requires being assertive, leading the way. We expect women to be warm and take care of our feelings and be relational.

And so, in some ways, it’s the key skill.

One of the key skills that’s required for being at the top of an organization is something that we don’t actually recognize women as being typically good at—and that’s not to say universally. I know lots of female executives who are great at the skill, but I do think just the bias around who we think of as a leader comes up over and over and lots of research has been done on that.

When we say the word leader, we think of a man, right? We trust men to tell us how competent they are. And so, we end up rewarding confidence rather than competence and that plays into this as well.

Women who are confident can be seen as bossy or self-centered. So how do women deal with these challenges?

Well, like I said earlier, the good news is that some of the things that we need to do are things that are good in general: balance warmth and competence.

When you need to be assertive, when you need to drive a conversation forward, remember to bring in some warmth, and that might be in the form of empathy, right? Have an awareness of whatever one’s concerns are and attend to those. It might be with humor. There are lots of different ways to display that warmth.

So anytime you have to really push on competence and push on your expertise, you also want to bring in some of that warmth. Again, ideally, everyone would do this, but it’s a little bit more of an imperative for women.

The other thing I think can be really helpful, especially if you’re senior in an organization, is to really try to normalize conflict. So that rather than it becoming something that everyone in the room feels stressed about, we’re trying to figure it out. Then you’re navigating not only the stress and complication and nuance of that conflict, but you’re also navigating gender bias if you normalize conflict, talking about how we are not going to see eye to eye.

This is a good thing. Let’s hash it out. If you and I start getting into it in a meeting, rather than be like, “Oh, Emily and Amy can’t solve this,” be like, “Well, wait, let’s see. Emily’s representing this perspective; Amy’s representing this perspective. How do we bring those two perspectives together?”

Are there internal challenges in all this as well?

If you have been socialized to avoid conflict and difficult conversations, work on that first and foremost. Remind yourself this is normal, this is inevitable. It doesn’t mean the end of a relationship. It doesn’t mean the sort of disintegration of a project or a collaboration.

It can, in fact it should, be a good thing, and so trying to just change your mindset is important. Instead of, oh God, these are such difficult conversations, say to yourself, what am I curious about here? What don’t I know? What can I learn from this situation?

The other sort of mental trick I try to use a lot is to be biased toward action. When we look at a situation and we decide, should I say something, should I not? Should I push this conversation forward? Should I shut it down? We think a lot about the risks of taking action.

We think, if we do these things, they’ll be mad. The conversation will go off the rails. That team member will stop talking to me.

What we don’t think about are the risks of doing nothing, and I think it helps to switch the risk assessment. At least start thinking, what are the risks of inaction? If I don’t say anything now, will this person think their behavior is OK if I don’t push this conversation forward? Will we remain stalled and miss our deadline?

Think about the risks of inaction and then of course, you want to assess the risks of action as well. But we often weigh one over the other and we need to give them a little bit more balance.

Do you think it matters how many women are in an organization?

We know from research that being the only is incredibly difficult. Being one of few women in a male-dominated industry, organization or team is challenging. And having people who look like you and who might share similar experiences can be beneficial.

It’s interesting, there’s some thinking and some initial research around female-dominated organizations and whether they’re actually more gender equal, and the jury is out on that at the moment. But in general, I think not being the only one is helpful.

I think just having models for communication conflict, seeing, OK, how does she do it? How is she balancing the competence and work? What’s working for her? It really, really helps.

Representation matters. It’s so cliche at this point, but it’s not just about, can I see myself in that position in the future, but it’s also about learning, OK, what worked, what skills, how do I do that?

How do I watch what this woman does and make it my own?

At the same time, having male allies is also hugely helpful and especially if you’re one of few women on a leadership team or in an organization, having people who recognize what you bring to the table and help you bring your strengths to bear, that can be incredibly helpful as well.

How about mentors, male and female? Is that part of what you’re talking about?

Yeah, absolutely. And I think having someone who can tell you what works in the organization, what doesn’t. My only hesitation is that I think sometimes what happens with mentorship is that you get one person’s perspective.

And if that person isn’t the same gender as you, sometimes you get a very specific perspective that doesn’t take into account women’s particular challenges. I’ve talked to women who told me my male mentor told me to do this, he told me to negotiate hard, and it totally backfired. So, I think we have to keep it in mind.

Yes, mentorship is incredibly helpful. Having someone take an interest in your career, give you feedback, help you navigate the organization, understand how it works, is of course, absolutely helpful.

And I do think the idea of being a mentor is wonderful. But one of the things that concerns me there is that it can play into those stereotypes about women being collective and caring about others. So in addition to doing all the other things you have to do in order to do be good at your job, you also have to mentor as many women as possible, and you also have to serve on the DEI committee. And you also have to serve on the hiring committee.

I worry it becomes too much. But if it’s something that a woman is genuinely interested in, then absolutely, I think it’s a wonderful thing to do.


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