Making Distinctions Reduces Conflict

Part of leadership is managing conflict, but you can’t manage what you don’t understand, and what you don’t understand leads to ineffective decision-making. Building the critical skill of making distinctions helps leaders make better decisions and manage conflicts.

Here are three distinctions every leader needs to understand.

1. Identity versus title

Your title might be leader, but if you overly identify with your former role, you’ll struggle to hold former peers accountable once you start managing them. While they are technically your teammates, if your title is leader, the buck stops with you.

Meanwhile, if you identify too closely with being a “nice leader,” you’ll rescue the underperformers and justify your leadership behavior because you like the employee or you don’t want to hurt their feelings. But there’s a difference between helping and rescuing.

Signs that you might be stuck in an identity trap include:

  • Continuing to do their work for them
  • Agreeing with excuses
  • Coaching them but not seeing results
  • Nudging them to take initiative
  • Feeling sorry for them

What to do instead

Ask yourself, “Do I want their success more than they do?” If the answer is “yes,” it’s time to elevate your identity to leader, and that starts with your actions.

Initiate a meeting, own the part you played, then set the new ground rules. It sounds like this:

“Morgan, I’ve realized that even with coaching the results just aren’t there. I’ve been putting off this difficult conversation because I knew you had gone through a rough patch. We need to start from a clear slate. Starting this week, I’ll expect …”

Then name the consequences of failing to get results. This helps the employee get a fresh start, and it allows you to stop avoiding and start leading.

2. Process versus result

There’s a time to talk about process and a time to focus on results. The end result drives process. In other words, the “what” always comes before the “how.” If you’re talking about process before defining the outcome, you’ll waste time arguing about details before you’re clear on the vision.

Here are some ways to know if you’re talking about process to early.

  • Inability to describe the situation
  • Talking about solutions before describing the end result
  • Arguments that never resolve
  • Asking about price before talking about value
  • Actions lead to circular movement

What to do instead

Define the situation. What’s not happening that should be happening? Next, define your end result. What does success look like, smell like, sound like or taste like?

Ask yourself whether your actions are premature.  If you find yourself designing a workshop, developing a new role, or starting a new initiative out of desperation, it means you need to slow down, define the situation and define the desired end result.

3. Perception versus observation

If you hear yourself saying things like, “they don’t care,” “he isn’t engaged” or “she thinks she’s above it all,” then you’re operating off of emotions and not observation. In other words, you’re relying on your emotional brain rather than your executive brain.

As a leader, it’s self-regulation that helps you initiate conversations that get results. Unbridled emotion is a sign you’re living in the survival zone, which leads to mismanaged conflict.

Here’s how to know whether you’re operating from your prefrontal cortex or your limbic system:

  • Harboring resentment about an employee
  • Avoiding conversations because you know what they will say
  • Moving employees around on the chessboard
  • Initiating global conversations instead of addressing the issue head on and individually
  • Retaliation

What to do instead

Increase your self-awareness by observing your inner dialogue. Is it full of blame, anger and resentment? Realize that any unwanted emotion probably means there’s a conversation that needs to happen.

Don’t believe every thought you think. Instead, take a breath, then question your perceptions by addressing observable behaviors. It goes like this, “Parul, I noticed you haven’t spoken up at the last two meetings. My perception is that you’re checked out. Walk me through what’s going on.”

Parul now has an opportunity to share concerns.

What if Parul says, “Not at all, it’s just your perception.” That’s your opportunity to say, “Perhaps it is. What I need from you is to offer your input and engage in the next meeting. Can I get that from you?”

Whether the employee was checked out or not, chances are their behavior will change because you maintained composure, addressed the observed behavior and shared your perception without preaching or judging.


Where there is conflict or ineffective decision-making, find two similar concepts, ideas or components and look for distinctions. It’s in the distinctions that good decisions are made and leaders successfully manage conflict

Article originally published via SmartBrief

Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of “Stop Workplace Drama” (Wiley 2011), “No-Drama Leadership” (Bibliomotion 2015) and  From Conflict to Courage (Berrett-Koehler 2022). She is a recognized expert on the LinkedIn Global Learning platform. Connect with Chism via LinkedIn.