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10.2 Leadership and Conflict

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe four roles that a leader might play with respect to conflict.
  2. Assess the effectiveness of leadership behavior exhibited in an illustrative academic situation.

“The hope of the world is that wisdom can arrest conflict between brothers. I believe that war is the deadly harvest of arrogant and unreasoning minds.”

Dwight Eisenhower

To lead a group successfully through conflict requires patience, good will, and determination. Robert BoltonBolton, R. (1979). People skills: How to assert yourself, listen to others and resolve conflicts. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall noted that leaders with low levels of defensiveness tend to help people in their organizations avert unnecessary strife because they are able to focus on understanding and dealing with challenges rather than on saving face or overcoming resistance from others in their groups. Bolton also wrote that employing power judiciously, displaying charisma, and employing effective communication skills can positively affect the way conflict is handled. In this section we will examine four general roles a leader may adopt with respect to preparing for inevitable instances of conflict. We will also provide an example of how one leader adopted the fourth role in a conflict situation.

The Leader as Motivator

Just as it takes more than one person to create conflict, it generally requires more than a single individual to resolve it. A leader should, therefore, try somehow to cause other members of a group to identify benefits to themselves of engaging in productive rather than destructive conflict. Randy Komisar, a prominent Silicon Valley executive who has worked with companies such as WebTV and TiVo and co-founded Claris Corporation, had this to say about the importance of this kind motivational role as his companies grew:

“I found that the art wasn’t in getting the numbers to foot, or figuring out a clever way to move something down the assembly line. It was in getting somebody else to do that and to do it better than I could ever do, in encouraging people to exceed their own expectations; in inspiring people to be great; and in getting them to do it all together, in harmony. That was the high art.”Komisar, R., & Lineback, K. (2000). The monk and the riddle: The education of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press. We’ll talk later about specific strategies that leaders and other group members can employ to manage conflict by means of motivation and other strategies.

The Leader as Delegator

No leader, even the leader of a handful of other people in a small team, can handle all the challenges or do all the work of a group. In fact, you’ve probably encountered leaders throughout your life who either exhausted themselves or alienated other group members—or both!—because they tried to do just that. Beyond accepting the sheer impossibility of shouldering all of a group’s work, a leader can attempt to prevent or manage conflict by judiciously by acting as a delegatorA leader who seeks to prevent or manage conflict by transferring responsibility for some of his/her tasks to others in a group or organization., turning over responsibility for various tasks to others.

Warren Bennis, a pioneer in the field of leadership, wrote that such delegation is a vital component of the leader’s role. When it is practiced skillfully, according to Bennis, delegation may confine conflicts to the levels at which they occur and free the leader to conduct higher-level undertakingsBennis, W. (1997). Why leaders can’t lead. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass..

The Leader as “Structuralist”

Michael Thomas, a professor for many years at the University of Texas, served as a respected consultant to numerous businesses and educational institutions. As he went from group to group, he tackled their problems primarily by reviewing their organizational charts and tinkering with their structure. As an admired organizational theorist and structuralistA leader who attempts to manage conflict in a group by its composition or structure., he believed that nearly any problem, tension, or conflict in a group could be solved structurallyProfessor emeritus Thomas, Jr., dies at 76. (2008, Nov 14). US Fed News Service, Including US State News. Retrieved from ProQuest Database.. How people behave, he said, is largely determined by where they sit in an organization and whom they report to and supervise. If Mike saw that people in two separate sections of a group were at odds, for instance, he would propose that the sections be consolidated so that both became responsible to the same supervisor. Mike certainly used further techniques in his consultant’s role, but his emphasis on structural changes stands as one kind of advice for leaders who hope to lessen the damaging effects of conflict in their groups.

Realistic Conflict Theory, or Realistic Group Conflict Theory (RGCT), likewise stresses the importance for leaders of configuring subgroups within a larger group so that they are required to meet common goals. A classic study by social psychologist Muzafer SherifSherif, M., Harvey, O.J., White, B.J., Hood, W., & Sherif, C.W. (1961). Intergroup conflict and cooperation: The robbers cave experiment. Norman, OK: The University Book Exchange. with 22 twelve-year-old boys in a summer camp in Oklahoma exemplifies the nature of RGCT and illustrates the concept of “leader as structuralist.”

The boys were split into two groups at the start of the study, after which leaders quickly emerged in each group. The two groups were then required to compete in camp games and were rewarded on the basis of their performance. Soon conflict arose as negative attitudes and behavior developed within each group toward the other.

In the third part of the study, the structure of the camp was changed in such a way that the two antagonistic groups were called upon to share responsibility for accomplishing a variety of tasks. The outcome of this structural change was that attitudes within each group toward the other became favorable and conflict lessened dramatically.Sherif, Muzafer (1966). In common predicament: Social psychology of intergroup conflict and cooperation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Paradoxically, a leader may also deal with conflict by separating people rather than bringing them together. If a team is experiencing internal conflict that seems to be related to intense personality differences between two individuals, for instance, the leader may decide to change the composition of the team so as to reduce their interaction. (Think about the third-grade teacher who finds two children pummeling each other during recess and sends them to opposite ends of the schoolyard).

The Leader as Promoter of “Constructive Deviation”

Civil disobedience. . . is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience…The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

Howard Zinn

I was at a conference in Jackson Hole, talking with Peter McLaren and Donaldo Macedo and David Gabbard. This guy in a herring-bone suit, all prim and proper, came over and said, “Well, Dr. Macedo, very, very interesting talk. I enjoyed it very much. Dr. Gabbard, very interesting talk. I enjoyed it very much.”

He was going around being polite. And then he turned and looked at Peter McLaren, and he said, “Mr. Mclaren...”—not “doctor”—“your discourse stretches my comfort zone just a little too much.”

And before any of us could say anything, Donaldo turned to him and said, “There are millions of people born, live their entire lives, and die on this planet without ever knowing the luxury of a comfort zone.”

The guy was speechless. It was a very polite way for him to say, “You know, I’m tired of hearing white men tell me that they’re feeling a little oppressed by discourse.”

The guy walked away, and Peter McLaren turned to me and said, “F**k! Why didn’t I say that?” But that’s Macedo. Macedo is on his toes, all the time. He’s never caught tongue-tied. He knows exactly how to turn it around.

Roberto Bahruth

A deviateSomeone who differs in some important way from the rest of a group. is someone who differs in some important way from the rest of a group. ResearchValentine, K.B., & Fisher, B.A. (1974). An interaction analysis of verbal innovative deviance in small groups. Speech Monographs, 41, 413–420. indicates that interaction with deviates may account for up to a quarter of many groups’ time and that such interaction may serve a positive function if it successfully causes people who hold a majority opinion to examine their views critically. In essence, dealing with deviates can keep group members on their toes and counteract the tendency to engage in groupthink. Encouraging deviates is one measure a leader can take to promote constructive conflict which brings a group to a higher level of understanding and harmony.

Of course, listening to a deviate may be disconcerting, since it may push us outside our comfort zone in the way that Peter McLaren did in the story told by Roberto Bahruth. In fact, deviates naturally have great difficulty influencing a group because of other people’s resistance. For this reason, part of a leader’s responsibility may sometimes consist in simply making sure that a deviate is not outright silenced by members of the majority. In other cases, it is the leader who at least at times assumes the role of deviate herself or himself.

Because deviates by their very nature call the members of the majority in a group to stop and seriously question their attitudes and behavior, which is usually disconcerting and uncomfortable, the most successful deviates are generally those who attempt to lead others in a cautious fashion and who demonstrate loyalty to their group and its goals.Thameling, C.L., & Andrews, P.H. (1992). Majority responses to opinion deviates: A communicative analysis. Small Group Research, 23, 475–502. Timing can also determine whether a deviate’s influence will be accepted. Waiting until a group has developed a sense of cohesiveness is most likely to be more effective, for instance, than jumping in with an unexpected or unconventional proposal during the group’s formative stages.

A Leadership Example

In early 1980 the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia had just been defeated at the end of many years of fighting, and several hundred thousand Cambodian refugees flooded hastily-constructed camps in eastern Thailand.Chandler, D.P. (1992). A history of Cambodia. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Many Americans became concerned about the suffering in the refugee camps, and a group of 25 graduate students in Vermont studying international administration nearly played a direct role in the situation because their program’s director was willing to speak out as a deviate.

The students were seated in a circle one morning, engaged in a discussion about human service agencies. One of them noticed that the director of the program, Walter Johnson, had been silent for some time and asked, “Walter, what do you think?”

Walter took a deep breath and replied, “I think what we’re talking about is all well and good, but what I’d really like to do is call a colleague of mine at the U.N. and see if we could help the Cambodian refugees in those horrible camps in Thailand.”

A stunned silence fell over the group. Someone asked, “Are you serious?”

Walter replied, “Yes, I am.”

Silence returned. Finally, one of the students said, “Walter, if you believe what you’re saying, go ahead and talk to your friend.”

Walter left the room and returned in half an hour to say that his U.N. colleague was willing to investigate humanitarian service options in Thailand for the students. The challenge, then, was to explore whether the students themselves would consider performing such service.

For the next two days, the whole group engaged in difficult, soul-searching discussions about what it would mean for them to go to Thailand. They quickly realized that if they made that choice they would have to abandon their curriculum at the school and might imperil their financial aid. Some of them would probably have to leave a spouse or children behind. And they might be putting themselves in danger of disease or violence. On the other hand, they could potentially be able to act according to their shared ideal of contributing to world peace in a personal, direct, and powerful manner.

Ultimately, the group realized that it was facing an “all or none” question: either every one of them would have to agree to travel to Thailand, or none of them should. Walter’s role as a constructive deviate in the Vermont group stimulated it to consider an option—the “go to Thailand option”—which in turn spurred earnest and productive conflict which most likely would not otherwise have taken place.

Key Takeaway

  • To harness conflict in a positive manner and contribute to the healthy functioning of a group, a leader should play the roles of motivator, delegator, structuralist, and promoter of constructive deviation.


  1. Think of someone you met in a group whom you would consider to be a “deviate.” On what basis did you make that determination? To what degree did others in the group share your assessment of the person?
  2. Do you share the view that any conflict What examples from your own experience support your answer? Consider a group that you’re currently part of, imagine a change in its structure which you feel could reduce its conflict, and share the information with two fellow students.
  3. All other things being equal, would you prefer to address a conflict by bringing the parties together or separating them? Explain your reasons and provide an example which you believe supports them.