The Irony of Leadership: We Need More Conflict and Civility

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Do you know how to use conflict to get your group members to consensus? How do you use disagreements to reinforce the standards and values of the organization, without ending up in endless fights? In other words, how do you help your members understand the importance of controversy with civility?

A word jumble with the words describing civility and discouse
We might describe civility differently, but it really is about remembering the person behind the disagreement.

Conflict in an organization is inevitable. Like, you can expect it to happen more than everyone to show up at chapter meetings. Some leaders thrive in conflict, others do all they can to avoid conflict. Some members seem to always bring conflict with everything they say, while others seem to never have an opinion on way or another.

During my time working with fraternities and sororities, when talking to them about how they ended up making seriously bad or long-lasting decisions, the one thing I always heard was “Well I wanted to say something, but I didn’t want to get into a fight with my brothers/sisters.” Or I heard “I tried to tell them what I thought but everyone said I was wrong so I stopped fighting.” This avoidance of conflict almost always is the start to a story that sometimes has an negative ending.

If we know that conflict is going to happen, why don’t we help train our members to actually use it to make the organizations better? Why are we so afraid of conflict? And more to the point, how can we engage in conflict without ending up with a semester-long grudge match where people take sides – how do we engage in controversy with civility?

The Social Change Model

The Social Change Model of Leadership defines Controversy with Civility as “recognizing two fundamental realities of any creative group effort: that differences in viewpoint are inevitable, and that such difference must be aired openly but with civility. Civility implies respect for others, a willingness to hear each other’s views, and the exercise of restraint in criticizing the views and actions of others.

“This is best achieved in a collaborative framework and when a common purpose has been identified. Controversy (conflict, confrontation) can often lead to new, creative solutions to problems, especially when it occurs in an atmosphere of civility, collaboration, and common purpose.”

So student groups need to recognize two things: differences are inevitable and they need to be aired openly. Sounds easier said than done! But it can be accomplished when you tie these expectations to the values of the chapter.

Part of Talking the Talk

In a blog post about congruence, I shared that chapter leaders need to help their members recognize the behaviors that define leadership in that chapter. Rather than telling people what to avoid, they need to be specific about what people need to do in order to be active members. This includes talking to your members during new member education about how to engage in conflict.

When I talk to student leaders about sharing group expectations, I use the phrase “What does this look and sound like?” So if you want to have more civil conflicts or disagreements during your meetings, what does it look and sound like?

When I talk to student leaders about sharing group expectations, I use the phrase “What does this look and sound like?”

When leaders begin to define the expectations, I want them to know and understand what and how these behaviors show up in groups. For instance, is it too quiet when people should be speaking up? Are people avoiding eye contact when tough topics are being talked about? Do your members become very passive aggressive about their comments? Or worse, do they just become aggressive?

So what is a leader to do in this situation? How do you follow through with the expectation for engaging in conflict?

Managing Conflict with Civility: Part One

There are many different ways a leader can manage conflict, but whatever the leader does it needs to be part of the culture of the organization. In that way, no matter who is president, there are established rules for engaging in conflict that help the group move forward with respect and boundaries.

Jeff Weiss and Jonathan Hughes, in the Harvard Business Review, recognize the importance of engaging in conflict to the organization. They share “Conflict management works best when the parties involved in a disagreement are equipped to manage it themselves. The aim is to get people to resolve issues on their own through a process that improves—or at least does not damage—their relationships.” The authors present three strategies for helps improve relationships and can become part of the culture of the organization

Devise and implement a common method for resolving conflict

Does your chapter have a method for resolving conflict? Is there a way that you can use to help frame the disagreements easily? For instance, you could use a Pro/Con/Pro/Con method.

This could be implemented when there is a decision that needs to be made but there is clear chapter division. But what I have found is that the division may be based on emotional factors rather than logical ones. So when a disagreement occurs, the person introducing the idea can present one pro support, while those who disagree can present a con support. Members trade back and forth, until there are enough pro/con ideas to either support or stop a decision. Members also see and hear the pro/con list so they can make a better, informed decision.

Provide people with criteria for making trade-offs

Sometimes the decisions that need to be made can feel like people need to give up something. For instance, how can you decide between paying for a chapter house renovation and an overdue banquet hall expense. You can do the pro/con method and still feel like something is more important. You should make sure you know what making a trade-off means for the chapter.

Sometimes we try to use consensus to make decisions, but in this case it might be easier to have leaders from all classes and years meet in a small group to go over the fine details. Sometimes a chapter meeting is the best place to introduce these details, but you could have a small group do this heavy lifting and report back the pro/cons that need to be considered.

Having a smaller group of leaders look for reasonable trade-offs can help the organization focus on bigger picture issues and still manage the conflict that could stop an organization from functioning.

Use the escalation of conflict as an opportunity for coaching

How many conflicts seem to come from interpersonal conflict rather than conflict over ideas that support the chapter? Or how many times do you have to help your members from two cliques resolve their support of two competing ideas? This can take up valuable chapter meeting time and frankly isn’t the conflict that drives the collective effort!

People often confuse the concept of controversy with civility with dealing with interpersonal conflict. And this is where coaching comes in. Who in your chapter is the person that your members respect the most? Have this person meet privately with these members to understand how their conflict can be distracting. Or at least it doesn’t belong in the chapter meeting.

You can dial down your coaching a bit, but it does help to be direct with your support!

I often tell chapter leaders not to be afraid to ask members to move their conflict out of the chapter meeting, privately. Give them time to solve their issues and help give examples of ways to resolve their issues. Remind them what civility sounds like in the chapter and how they are not participating in the chapter when they bring their conflict inside.

This comes back to reminding your members what civility looks and sounds like. We don’t need people to have BFF relationships with all the members of the chapter but they do need to understand how to be brothers and sisters when doing the business of fraternity and sorority.

To Be Continued

I will continue writing about Controversy with Civility next week, focusing on how to engage in conflict that makes our work better. I’ll introduce a couple of ways to ask your members to disagree that helps refine the outcome of your decisions. And I’ll connect the idea of conflict with civility with the concept of congruence.

Want to learn more about the Social Change Model?  Invite me to your campus for a presentation on this topic and other related leadership topics!  Email me at

How Do you Manage Conflict?

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Take the Conflict Management Styles quiz, based on the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument to learn more about your preferred conflict management style! Want to share with a chapter or organization training? Contact me to schedule a meeting!

About Post Author

Joseph Rios, EdD

I am Joseph Rios and I believe that leadership is an expression of our values
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