To the C-Suite and Beyond: A case for engaging in (healthy) conflictFeatured

When evaluating women candidates for very senior leadership positions, organizations want to believe they are casting an unbiased eye, fairly assessing two main questions: 1. Can she do the job?, and 2. Do we want to work with her?

Developing a professional track record that addresses each of these questions is so fraught with maddening pitfalls that it causes many exquisitely qualified women to drop out of the race altogether.

So what role does constructive conflict play in influencing decision makers’ perceptions and, ultimately, in getting more women into the C-suite and beyond?

Ok, let’s get down to it.

Navigating workplace conflict as a woman is messy, confusing, delicate, and can be damning. From the moment we accept our very first job offer, women are faced with a labyrinth of opposing (and mostly pointless) expectations – direct and indirect – about how to deal with, respond to, and oftentimes acquiesce to conflict. How exhausting and, frankly, draining of precious time and mental bandwidth.

At a certain point in my own career, I just said, “F*** it.” And I’m so glad I did.

A while ago, I was a senior manager at a large, well-known financial payments company. I was hired with a mandate to shake up and transform the department, do things fundamentally differently and make a mark.

Despite having a fantastically supportive and creative boss, other business heads and top-level management had either not been briefed on impending changes or had opposed them. Therefore, both my hiring and initial strategy were met with surprise, which ended in stonewalling.

In this particular company, head-on aggression was looked down upon so conflict was mostly subtle and very passive. I started to see the writing on the wall when status update after status update came back with "no update", "unchanged" and the very telling "deprioritized".

Yet, everyone was theoretically onboard when asked outright. Important note: Two other non-negligible factors to this story are the roles of internal communications and stakeholdering, and understanding company culture. But these are for subsequent posts 😁

To make a long story short, it was in this role that I unabashedly leaned into conflict. Was it unpleasant? Yes. Did I massively over-index? Very likely. Did it get things done? Yes. Did I win friends? No. Did I win influence? Definitely.

Redefine what conflict means to you

Regardless of where we find ourselves on the job ladder, conflict and open disagreement are unavoidable. Our comfort with, familiarity with, and mastery of conflict are different at different stages of our careers (and it’s not necessarily a linear progression).

Earlier in my career, I spent a great deal of time observing but not engaging in conflict. I was not particularly shy about voicing a contrarian opinion but I – like a lot of women – was concerned about coming across as too aggressive, difficult, or unpleasant. As a result, I wasn’t getting the proverbial 10,000 hours worth of practice to get good at conflict or understand my own conflict style. That was a mistake.

It was not until years later when I nearly blew a gasket working in an excessively conflict-avoidant culture that I started to explore how ‘conflict’ could merely mean ‘disagreement’, and how I could leverage this to dismantle roadblocks and get more sh*t done. Today, I see conflict as another precious tool in the communications toolbox. Previously, though, I had mistaken being able to manage and steer conflict for causing or creating conflict - the former being an essential management and leadership skill; the latter contributing to a toxic workplace for those around you.

As I purposely pushed my own boundaries with conflictual interactions, I better understood my preferred methods, how to engage, when to disengage, when to hold my ground and when to seek counsel. Honing conflict management skills from the beginning of my career would have undoubtedly saved me hours and hours of grief and put me on the front foot in a number of important situations.

‘Conflicting’ my way to the C-suite

One thing my short-lived ‘conflict bootcamp’ of sorts resulted in was a transformation of the role that conflict played in my every day. I disassociated “conflict” with “meanness” and started engaging in varying degrees of disagreement, which actually drove my and my teams’ performances.

When one is looking for ways to practice conflict, it is astonishing how many opportunities are presented throughout a normal day! In my case, in-meeting communications was the place to start: insisting/persisting until my point was acknowledged, correcting others' misconceptions pertaining to my team/project/report/etc… and making a point to openly defend my team members – oft-time resulting in a degree of conflict.

What happened next? My confidence as a leader grew. Stagnated projects started moving. My relationship with difficult peers changed. More importantly, though, I felt better understood, less restrained, less frustrated, and more able to direct my own narrative. This must have been evident on the outside as well as internally because the next role I accepted was as Chief Product & Marketing Officer at a London-based FinTech (and holy smokes does one need to be comfortable with conflict to sit on an ExCo!).

Without fully understanding what I was doing at the time, I was figuring out how to cut through complexity. As I mentioned earlier, engaging in conflict can certainly be unpleasant but it can also get things done. And in this regard, confronting conflict made way for positive outcomes such as appearing more like a senior leader with command and control of any number of situations (the good, the bad, and the excessively conflictual).

Tip: When emotions are on the rise (or already flaring), it’s hard to walk back your thinking and/or take a pause, which is exactly what helps me to manage conflict (especially when I’m right in the center of it). To give myself thinking and breathing space, I ask questions that help me size up the level and type of conflict. Is this a clash of approach, process, outcome, personality, principles, or – more often than not – communication style that resulted in hurt feelings? Ok, now engage accordingly.

Do it your way!

Damned if you do, stepped on if you don’t. Being a woman and navigating this subject is a unique nightmare. From the “nice girl” and “work mom” stereotypes to “aggressive” and “whiny” and “catty” labels, there is no move free from harmful judgment. And while I 100% do not have all the answers, I strongly do not recommend that you wait to unpack your relationship with conflict. Like any other skill, constructive conflict management (whether it is within a team or between yourself and others) takes practice. Start today.

There are very few things in life that are truly binary. That means that one need not feel obligated to approach conflict in a stereotypically male fashion. Do it your way and try to care less about what others think*. In my case, that means trying to shrug off societal gender behavioral norms while remembering that I have my very own gender-specific (and ethnic and culture and generation-specific) conflict style that is pretty effective, statistically speaking.

In summary, figuring out my own way(s) of dealing with and increasing my comfort with conflict over the past five or so years have had a profound impact on my leadership style and, thus, my career development. Of course, that isn’t the only thing that enabled me to move from senior manager to C-suite but I do believe that it contributed quite a bit. Leveraging conflict as a tool rather than something to avoid at all costs takes practice and skill-building**. There are novel techniques to learn and engrained tendencies and habits to unlearn.

Whether you’re new to the world of work, looking for a career breakthrough in the near future, or meandering your way happily (or unhappily), my advice is to examine how you can deal with conflict more easily*** for your own peace of mind and to take your leadership to the next level.

*Easier said than done - I know. I also recognize that simply not caring what others think of you is a great privilege that not all of us have. As well, displaying emotional intelligence and empathy for others, including how you are perceived, is a large part of what makes a great team member, manager and leader. However, what I’m suggesting here is to not let unreasonable expectations preclude you from engaging in conflict. I’ll refer back to the “damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t” refrain…

**In this article, I’m referring only to what I would consider constructive conflict or opportunities to build (new skills, new habits, new methods, etc…). If you find yourself being bullied or in an unbearably toxic environment, find the exit.

***Just because something appears easy, doesn’t make it so. For me to get to a point of dealing with conflict easily required lots of hard work. And what does “easy” mean anyway? In my case, it meant not obsessing over potential outcomes and overcoming all sorts of paralysis to engage freely.

@AmberSkinner I love this post - very eloquently written and packed with great insight from your own experience.Like you, I've had to find ways to lean into conflict to get things done, and it can be quite effective, but a bit unnerving coming off as 'aggressive' and what that impression may leave on others. Learning to master conflict is a journey without a doubt.
Love this!
Thanks for sharing, AmberSkinner. I find so much food for thought in your post.My observations are that mastering conflict shows and raises your presence in the situation ('I'm fully here right now'), indicates that you trust in yourself and your expertise and that you are reliable (not bending over as soon as other opinions come up). This is what teams and colleagues want to see in leaders, what creates trust.The contrary when avoiding conflict at all costs. Shying away corrupts your image as a trusted leader.
Wow, really good way of putting it 👏🏾 👍🏾 *I'm fully present and engaged*
Terrific insights here! Thanks for sharing your story. I have found when you master healthy conflict, you also set yourself up as someone who is a risk taker and who other leaders can count on for honest feedback. Those are highly valued in the C-Suite. Others start saying about you - If you want to know the real deal go talk to "fill your name in here".Great share!!