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Servant Leadership: How to solve conflicts

Originally published by Computerwoche magazine (German only)

In times of digital transformation, we require concepts like servant leadership when it comes to conflict resolution. Here’s is what you need to know.

Servant Leadership turns the traditional understanding of leadership on its head.
Servant Leadership turns the traditional understanding of leadership on its head.

No one likes to run into conflicts or be stuck in them. But as a project manager, you don’t only have to successfully complete projects without any fuss or quibble, but you also need to solve conflicts that arise in the course of the project. This is not an easy task. Some employees can disagree on any topic and teams can discuss responsibilities more than solutions. This can cause projects to fail. If you want to keep your projects on track, you need the right strategy.

Conflict resolution in the VUCA world

We live in a VUCA environment, which is characterized by change, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Tasks become more complex and problems more unpredictable. Mastering them requires teamwork from employees, teams and departments. Nothing to be taken for granted.

This challenge often becomes obvious when several departments need to collaborate via ticket systems. It may remind you of a tennis match: The goal is to bring the ticket into the other department's field. So, IT tickets are passed back and forth between departments, stating: "We're not responsible." The field is limited by the responsibilities of the respective department. If they disagree on whether a task is still within the scope of responsibility, it is escalated to management, which acts as a linesman and finally decides on victory or defeat. This type of collaboration is exhausting and neither effective nor efficient. Over time, dissatisfaction, frustration, and anger can arise and unload into emotional and unprofessional discussions. The ideal breeding ground for project delays.

Mediation, and in particular the transformative mediation approach, can help project managers remain empowered to act. How? It’s simple: through empowerment and recognition. Simon Sinek, a successful visionary and management consultant, describes empowerment as follows: "Leadership is about empowering others to achieve things they didn't think possible." And that hits the nail on the head. Leaders who empower others to resolve their own conflicts are the most successful. This way, the constant tug-of-war can be transformed into cooperative teamwork. Collaboration will be more pragmatic, productive and, above all, customer-centric. Project managers achieve the best possible results when they bring certain skills to the table.

Servant Leadership - Definition

A “Servant Leader” serves his employees, customers and the company. With his service orientation, he turns the previous understanding of leadership upside down. The value-based leadership approach is also becoming increasingly popular in companies here in Germany. The five key characteristics of servant leadership are:

  • Empathy and active listening

  • Create awareness

  • Have foresight

  • Enable growth

  • Create community

These skills help if conflicts arise and with solving them, especially if you maintain a neutral position. And if a servant leader does face a seemingly impenetrable wall, transformative mediation can help.

Servant Leadership - Best Practices

Transformative mediation aims to systematically resolve conflicts and strengthen relationships. The following five best practices lead to sustainable success in conflict situations:

  1. Strengthen personal responsibility Respect the involved conflict parties as experts in their own field. It is not the project manager's job to take responsibility for conflict resolution. On the contrary: Empower others to resolve conflicts on their own. Let the conflicting parties take the reins for the outcome themselves.

  2. Resource-oriented attitude Think in terms of resources. All parties involved are capable of rescuing themselves from a situation they have brought upon them. In order to do that, they need new ways of thinking and new perspectives. In this case, a mediator often acts as an enabler to activate strengths.

  3. Multipartiality Don't just be neutral but try get a deeper understanding of the perspectives of all parties involved. Recognize the respective problems, wishes, and needs. Impartiality is achieved when everyone recognizes that they are all right according to their own perspective.

  4. Encourage cooperation Create an environment that facilitates solution-oriented discussions and collaborative behavior by helping the parties understand each other's situation. Comprehension creates understanding. Understanding creates trust. Trust is the basis for cooperation.

  5. Understanding the bigger picture Instead of already assuming the cause of a conflict, take a closer look at the entire system. How and why did the conflict arise? What behaviors led to the problem and in what context? Be able to identify and consider correlations. Especially in our complex world, it is important to get a holistic picture of a situation to act with foresight.

Let’s go back to where we started. It becomes evident why a transformative approach is essential for effective conflict resolution in the VUCA world. Only by using the right tools to solve a conflict, we are able to find the best solution.


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