Conflict is rooted in unconscious projections of leaders, peers, or followers, and conflict resolution is a result of personal ownership (or the retraction) of previously unconscious projections. Bernard Bass (2008), in his Handbook of Leadership, writes, “conflict has a tendency to escalate and to be exacerbated by mirror imaging-attributing opposite qualities to the opposition in a conflict. Thus, “we” are honest, just, rational, and benevolent; ‘they” are dishonest, unjust, emotional, and malevolent” (Bass, 2008, p. 334). This phenomenon is due to repressed feelings that manifest in projected and often rigid judgments of others.
Leadership is an opportunity to become more self-aware (as a leader) and to invite increased self-awareness (an important component of emotional intelligence) in others. The effective leader understands that this may involve both strong positive and negative projections. “No leaders are successful if they are not prepared to be rejected” (Jacobs, 1979, as cited by Bass, 2008). The transformational leader may even invite conflict, knowing that an opportunity for personal and collective growth can proceed from the disturbance. “In contrast with transactional leaders, transformational leaders seem to have more ability to deal with conflict. There are less readily disturbed by it, possibly because they are more at peace with themselves” (Bass, 2008, p. 332).
Effective leadership training must include opportunities for trainees to “sit” in the discomfort. Burns (1978, p. 39) wrote that “Leaders, whatever their professions of harmony, do not shun conflict: they confront it, exploit it, ultimately embody it” (as quoted by Bass, 2008). The emotions that underlie conflict cannot come forward to be transformed if they are not given time and space to emerge. Unfortunately, dealing with emotion is the very last item on most executive’s to-do lists. Bass is an apparent proponent of intellectual and emotionally avoidant leadership writing, “If the conflict is mostly emotional, the outcome will be less well understood and will result in a less emotionally acceptable decision. The resulting decision will be poorer” (Bass, 2008, p. 320). This is an erroneous, superficial, and popular philosophy. It is, in fact, the avoidance of uncomfortable emotion that keeps conflict, lack of understanding, poor decision making, and organizational psychopathology in place. “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering” (C. G. Jung 1966, p. 75).
Leaders must first become willing to know and process their unconscious material. Leadership training can set up situations that provoke emotion and teach feelings awareness, and communication techniques are useful. Psychodramatic, gestalt, and bioenergetic techniques can allow access to deeper levels of emotional content.
The groundbreaking work of Harville Hendrix with couples is transferable to leadership training and conflict resolution. His work is partly rooted in the Jungian concept of the shadow (repressed and emotionally charged psychological material). Hendrix developed a process called the Imago Dialogue that includes the following four principles:
- Most of your partner’s criticisms of you have some basis in reality.
- Many of your repetitious, emotional criticisms of your partner are disguised statements of your own unmet needs.
- Some of your repetitious, emotional criticisms of your partner may be an accurate picture of a disowned part of yourself’.
- Some of your criticisms of your partner may help you to identify your own lost self (Hendrix, 1988, p. 116).
The process involves feelings expression, articulation of data, listening, mirroring (repeating back what was said), validation, and empathy. Although all of these steps are not necessary in a business setting, a condensed version has been useful to this writer as a self-awareness and conflict resolution tool in organizational settings.
Certainly it is not possible to introduce these tools into all organizational situations. Many corporate settings are deeply encrusted with bureaucratic blocks to anything that smells like emotion. However, the rapidly accelerating technological world is demanding flexible leadership and the rigid, purely intellectual approach cannot remain viable. Caruso and Salovey (2004) write, “Because emotions contain information and influence thinking, we need to incorporate emotions intelligently into our reasoning, problem solving, judging, and behaving. This requires us to stay open to emotions, whether they are welcome or not, and to choose strategies that include the wisdom of our feelings” (p. 10). Trainings that allow leaders some freedom from this epidemic of exaggerated fear of emotion must certainly have an increasingly important place in leadership development.
Bass, B. M. (2008). The Bass handbook of leadership: Theory, research, and managerial applications (4th ed.). New York: Free Press.
Caruso, D. R., & Salovey, P. (2004).The emotionally intelligent manager: How to develop and use the four key emotional skills of leadership, San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass.
Hendrix, H. (1988). Getting the love you want. Melbourne, Victoria: Schwartz & Wilkinson.
Jung, C.G. (1966), Psychology and Religion: West and East. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, 11. Routledge & Kegan Paul: London.
Burns, J. (1978). Leadership. New York: Harper.