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Conflict vs. Tension: Do You Know the Difference?

By John C. Maxwell | October 2, 2018
Conflict vs. Tension: Do You Know the Difference?


It’s one of the most requested subjects for the John Maxwell Company to address, and it’s something familiar to every leader. In fact, if you’re not familiar with the subject, chances are you’re not leading very well.

No matter where you go or what team you assemble, you’re inevitably going to have to lead through conflict.

The question is, do you know what “conflict” really means?

You see, I’ve come across a lot of leaders who think that every interaction that isn’t perfectly kumbaya is conflict. And the moment they sense conflict, they begin to think of how they’re going to address it, stamp it out, eliminate it from the culture.

They plan meetings, write emails, spend hours obsessing over how to deal with it, and then, if they’re like many leaders, they sit around and do nothing.

Because they don’t want to create even more conflict.

Leaders often feel that way because conflict is an either/or situation. It’s two people who simply cannot agree on something, or a circumstance with only two viable outcomes.

Conflict is challenging because it requires choice—making a judgment regarding the situation—that will upset someone.

In my experience, conflict is actually rare. True conflicts are those times when every possibility has been exhausted, every pathway explored, and at the end of the day it’s one or the other. And candidly, those are the situations at the core of leadership.

If you’re a leader, it’s your job to make the tough decisions. If you can’t, you probably need a new job.

So, if true conflict is rare, what are so many leaders struggling with?

Why do so many people cry out for help?

It’s simple: what many leaders mistake for conflict is actually tension. And tension is nothing to be afraid of.

Tension is different than conflict because it’s a sliding scale—there are many possibilities along that scale, and it’s a leader’s job to learn to navigate among them. There are plenty of differing opinions, and often there’s even strong disagreement, but doors remain open and people continue to work together.

Good leaders embrace tension.

Great leaders harness it.

Tension can be utilized to spur creativity, to encourage outside-of-the-box thinking and actions and stir a good team out of the threat of lethargy. Tension is a natural occurrence that is neither good nor bad—until a leader’s response to that tension pushes it in one direction or the other.

Recently, I spoke at the Global Leadership Summit. It was an opportunity that some people advised me to reconsider because of the circumstances around the Summit’s founder, Bill Hybels. For some people, it was a conflict that they didn’t want me to step into.

For me, I saw tension that needed leadership. So I went. I spoke. I listened to the other speakers who came and gave some of the best talks I’ve ever heard on leadership. I interacted with people who came just to listen and learn. It was a beautiful picture of leadership in challenging times. I came away greatly encouraged, and I’m grateful to have gone.

Sometimes, we as leaders need to step back and ask ourselves, “Is this conflict or is it tension? Is this simply the result of good people working through a challenge, or is this a deadlock that requires my leadership?”

Next week, I’m going to share with you the greatest sign of conflict within a team, but for today, let’s start with this:

As a leader, do you know the difference between conflict and tension?

Where in your organization are you confusing the two?

What is one thing you can do tomorrow to help bring clarity on that issue for your people?

I look forward to reading your answers in the comments.

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