Getting comfortable with conflict 


Recently, after New Zealand’s two largest linear TV broadcasters announced substantial cuts, Nat found herself in a passionate debate with two of her besties. Do we still need the fourth estate? Were the media architects of their own demise? What is ‘news’ in 2024?

Debating decisions we have no control over may seem unproductive, but it’s actually a deliberate choice. We both make a point of actively seeking out conflict; Kristen’s family has entire messenger chats dedicated to it. Disagreements abound, and opinions are shared freely and forcefully. Even the recent launch of the Powrsuit Network can be directly linked to a challenging workshop with our advisor.

These conflict-heavy conversations aren’t always comfortable, but they are necessary – especially for women leaders.

When you never disagree, everything feels like conflict

Women are taught to be people pleasers. We’re trained to be agreeable and likeable, to smooth over conflict, and to put other’s feelings before our own. Even career feedback we receive reinforces these traits – it’s often focused on confidence, cooperation, coping with politics and resilience

As a result, conflict is one of the biggest career challenges facing Powrsuiters. Managing difficult dynamics, different opinions, and direct feedback can be really hard when you’ve been conditioned to Keep Calm and Carry On. And this fear of conflict isn’t reserved for the big stuff. When sending back a burnt coffee meets your threshold for ‘confrontational’, differing opinions can easily feel like personal attacks. Cue: unhelpful conflict-avoidance tactics to keep the ‘peace’; things like silent resistance, passive aggression and venting to everyone but the person involved.

Conflict is critical to performance

Leaders need to understand the difference between personal and professional conflict. We need to lean into the latter, not in heated exchanges but in regular, everyday discussions. Why? Diverse leadership teams outperform on virtually every business measure. That performance boost comes from the healthy conflict of diverse perspectives, a benefit that dissipates when those at the table choose not to engage.

When we’re challenged, we catch oversights and spot unintended consequences. We add depth to shared knowledge, foster more robust decisions, and drive better outcomes. Not convinced? We’ll politely and respectfully reinforce our argument through these comically bad examples of what happens when conflict is missing.

Practice voicing your dissent

After a lifetime in peacekeeping, many of us need to practice disagreement simply to get comfortable with it. While it might not be wise to pick a political fight at your next family dinner, there are plenty of opportunities to practice conflict in inconsequential scenarios.

Gather around a group of trusted friends and give debating a whirl. Want a couple of starter questions? Here’s some more from our own recent practice:

  • Does the public have a right to know Kate Middleton’s whereabouts? 
  • Is it ok to buy stuff from Temu?
  • Are Crocs fashion or faux pas?
  • Does pineapple belong on pizza?
  • Should school uniforms be required?

Take action

Disagree with someone? Try turning the tables and presenting each other’s case. It takes the ‘personal’ out of conflict and encourages open-mindedness.

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