Assessing An Interviewee’s Conflict Management Skills

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Being able to effectively handle challenging conversations is an essential leadership skill. But is there a way to assess someone’s conflict competence – or any other leadership competency, for that matter – BEFORE you hire them?


Here, as example, are some conversation-starters you can easily add to your upcoming interviews:

  1. “People don’t always agree. And those disagreements can sometimes become uncomfortable. Please share an example of a conflict you experienced at work…and how you worked through it.”
  2. (Part A) “Different things ‘trigger’ different people. Please share an example of a time that YOU were triggered by someone…and how you dealt with it.”
  3. (Part B) “What helps you NOT get triggered?”
  4. (Part C) “How do you help others who you’ve inadvertently triggered regain their composure?”
  5. “Please share an example of a time when you avoided addressing a work issue because of the conflict you felt it would’ve caused…and walk me through your decision process.”
  6. “Please share an example of a workplace conflict you unintentionally may have caused – or was blamed for causing…and how you dealt with it.”
  7. “Please share an example of how you worked through an issue with someone you disagreed with that resulting in something excellent happening.”
  8. (Part A) “On a scale of 1 to 10 (1=low; 10=high) how would you rate your conflict management skills? Why?”
  9. (Part B) “On a scale of 1 to 10 (1=low; 10=high) how would OTHERS rate your conflict management skills? Why?”

The key is in your thinking about whatever competency you want to focus on, where (what scenarios) that competency would be needed, and asking the interviewee to share an experience of theirs that illuminates how they thought, felt, and/or acted in such a scenario of their choosing – and then asking whatever clarification or followup questions you need to fully understand their example.

By doing so, you can then pretty easily determine if the answer they provided sufficiently demonstrates the competency you’re looking for – in a sufficiently relevant context – or not.

Give it a try and let me know what you learn.

Leadership Moves #31: Use Your Authority to Make Good Things Happen Sooner

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Great bosses use their authority to unlock important doors for their staff.

  • Is another department causing problems for your team? Use your authority (by calling who needs to be called) to get things moving in the right direction, again.
  • Is there some sort of roadblock that’s slowing down an important project? Use your authority (by authorizing additional headcount or financial resources) to clear it away.
  • Is there some annoying internal process thing that’s unnecessarily frustrating your staff ? Use your authority (by changing a policy or providing additional information) to make it better.

Whatever it is, hit it head on. Make some waves if you have to, but show your staff you’re willing to go to bat for them. Big or small, the impact will be noticeable AND appreciated.

Then, with things realigned, as such, challenge your staff – and their staff – to use THEIR authority to surprise and delight you with what they can now accomplish.

Ready? Go!


Leadership Move #12: Master the Difficult Conversation

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Conversations are an essential part of your job, especially those difficult conversations.

Difficult conversations are the ones where you know you need to talk with someone about something, but you expect that they’ll either: (a) want to vociferously disagree with you, or (b) become upset, agitated, or disgruntled by what you are saying.

Said another way, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, authors of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most, describe it thusly:

“Anytime we feel vulnerable or our self-esteem is implicated, when the issues at stake are important and the outcome uncertain, when we care deeply about what is being discussed or about the people with whom we are discussing it, there is potential for us to experience the conversation as difficult.”

Leadership IS Difficult Conversations

Who hasn’t, at some point, used any of these difficult conversation starters?

  • “You’re being written up for a performance lapse…”
  • “You’re getting less of a raise and/or bonus than you probably expected…”
  • “You didn’t get the promotion…”
  • “You cannot have that day off…”
  • “Your request has been denied…”
  • “Funding for your project was not approved…”

But what many bosses don’t seem to realize, is that having a difficult conversations really IS what their job is all about. And it’s helpful to remember that while difficult conversations may be somewhat challenging, they’re really, really important.

Making Difficult Conversations More So

It’s really a shame how many bosses make difficult conversations so much more difficult than they need to be. How? Here are just 10 obvious ways:

  1. By being disrespectful
  2. By being argumentative
  3. By becoming triggered
  4. By not listening
  5. By losing patience
  6. By allowing the conversation to shift to a related, but different topic
  7. By holding a grudge from prior difficult conversations
  8. By not having the conversation in a timely manner
  9. By not preparing their whys and wherefores
  10. By not insuring that the message they INTENDED to be received was the message that actually WAS received. (Remember Leadership Move #7?!)

We’ve all had bosses who’ve made conversations more difficult than they needed to be. Maybe you do, too, sometimes.

Making Difficult Conversations Less So

Countless articles, blog posts, books, and such, have been written on the topic. Pick up a few and start reading. Or, if you prefer podcasts or videos, etc., there are plenty of them, out there, as well.

But if you’re looking for a few ideas to get you started on the road to mastering difficult conversations, here’s what I’d recommend:

  1. Always be respectful and attentive to the employee you’re talking with, AND the related business concerns you’re wanting to address.
  2. Remember that, as the boss, you have the authority (and responsibility) to choose the agenda or specific (business-appropriate) topic of any meeting you chair.
  3. Never, ever, confront someone with only hearsay evidence. Instead, lead with either verifiable facts or direct personal experience.
  4. Unbundle and differentiate between related and overlapping issues so you can speak more discerningly about what you want to talk about.
  5. Purposefully choose how best to start each conversation and when best to segue between related issues.
  6. Actively monitor tone, tenor, and mood to insure that the employee feels comfortable and safe enough to actually BE present, when present.
  7. Deflect attempts to change the topic until you are completely satisfied that the message you intended to be received is exactly the message that was received.
  8. Reiterate as often as necessary ‘why’ this topic is so important (usually because it affects not just their own performance, but the performance of the larger group – which is, by the way, why you’re totally justified in raising it with them) and that it’s important to you that they fully understand these implications and ‘respond’ to them, constructively.
  9. Have the employee restate the message you wanted them to receive (to confirm proper receipt) and discuss and agree to any related commitments, appropriate next steps, and ongoing accountabilities.
  10. Thank them for their time and willingness to have such an important dialogue with you, express your appreciation for who they are and what they do, and offer to clarify any points or answer any follow-up questions they may have as they think through and work to integrate your counsel.

Of course you could also schedule a time for us to talk it through, together.

Your thoughts?


Leadership Move #10: Be Courageous

Unlike many (most?) people, leaders are often seen as being truly fearless.

Even the most challenging of circumstances, whatever they may be, seem to create little to no fear for (or in) them.

But that’s not always (read: actually) the case.

Don’t Fear the Fear

Sometimes, leaders feel a LOT of fear. Even if you can’t see it.

But it’s their ability to move forward, notwithstanding the fear, that sets them apart.

So it’s not really their ‘fearlessness’ – the absence of fear – but,  their ‘courageousness’ – their not letting the fear they feel slow them down.

And courageousness is an ESSENTIAL component of being a good leader.

(Courageousness is not the same as recklessness or being irresponsible. You get that, right?)

Do not strive to become comfortable in uncomfortable situations. Rather, learn to not mind being uncomfortable in such situations.

Becoming More Courageous

Admittedly, it’s a process, but here are some ideas to keep testing and challenging yourself with:

  • Quit waiting for permission…
    • By virtue of your position and rank, you’ve likely already got whatever permission you think you need.
    • Recognize that, and OWN it.
  • Articulate what you see…
    • To help you fine-tune your message.
    • So that others can see it, too.
  • Say what needs to be said…
    • Whatever ‘it’ is as clearly as possible.
    • Without diluting your message with avoidance or sugar-coating – and as politely and respectfully as possible.
  • Tell your staff meaningful things, such as…
    • ‘Here’s what I want you to think about…’
    • ‘Here’s what I think you’re missing…’
  • And when your staff tells you what IS missing…
    • Don’t just explain it away.
    • Really work to improve what you can and if you really can’t, explain why you can’t.
  • Share your insights and perspectives…
    • You’ve got good things to say.
    • Recognize that, and OWN it.
  • But, don’t shoot from the hip…
    • It rarely works as well as you think.
    • Impulsiveness has far more to do with being undisciplined than being courageous – realize the difference.
  • Speak from an informed point of view…
    • Keep your eyes on what’s IMPORTANT, not just on what’s HAPPENING.
    • Don’t pretend to know when you don’t – it leaves a mark!
  • Understand the 5 (or 6) Truths about Fear

the 5 (or 6) truths about fear

Feeling the Fear

Being courageous doesn’t not ELIMINATE fear; it just helps you better manage it – especially when tackling difficult issues.

Which, as a leader, is a large part of what you get paid to do.

For more on fear, fearlessness, and courageousness, visit

Leadership Move #9: Anticipate Reactions

Image Source: PixabayYour words, however clear you make them, will likely still be misinterpreted.

So it’s incumbent upon you to think through what they may be mistaken to mean BEFORE you open your mouth.

Talk with more than just your fan club

The problem is that many leaders consider only how their words will ‘land’ with their constituency – that is, the people who ALREADY tend to agree with whatever they say. But leaders do not have the luxury of preaching only to the choir – not if they want to be effective leaders, that is.

Therefore, considering – in advance – how your words will be received by those who don’t already buy-in is an essential Leadership Move.

  • Consider Example #1: A new boss was hired from the outside to help affect an internal culture change. Yet in the process of explaining his mandate, he scoffed at how poorly things were currently being done.

Now he may, in fact, have been right, but that is not the point.

The point is that he quite possibly just insulted – and demoralized – all the good people who have been working their tails off since before he even arrived. And that’s a reaction that certainly could have been anticipated.

It would have been much better had this leader realized that no matter how bad things had become, there was likely SOME people whose work could be built upon. If this leader had acknowledged their achievements BEFORE moving on to what could be improved, he would have garnered their support, rather than them feeling ignored and disrespected. “What’s important to me,” he might have said, “is that we know what we’re aiming at. So I want to recognize some particularly strong work I’ve seen so far as a base to build upon.”

  • Consider Example #2: A boss crowed to her department that she just solved another problem for one of her work groups – the same work group that she tends to always help out.

Now she may, in fact, have done some very fine work, but that is not the point.

The point is that she just possibly insulted – and demoralized – staff in her other work groups by so blatantly playing favorites. And that’s a reaction that certainly could have been anticipated.

It would have been much better if this leader talked about how, by virtue of her position, has the authority to help with EVERYONE’S nagging problems. “The clearer you can articulate your work group issues to me,” she might have said, “the sooner I can work to improve matters, regardless of what work group you’re in. But if you don’t tell me, you can’t blame me for not addressing it.”

Think before you speak

Anticipating negative reactions is not difficult. All you really have to do is ask the question: “How might my words be misinterpreted?”

And then modify them, accordingly.

While you may not get it exactly right, at first, the chances of not making things even worse are dramatically better.

For the little time it takes, it’s well worth the effort.

Your thoughts?


Leadership Move #8: Have the Right Conversations

Image Source: PixabayWhen talking with staff about performance improvements,YOU must set the agenda.

Because if you just let things naturally unfold, you’ll likely find a real mismatch between the conversation YOU wanted to have with them, and the one THEY ended up having with you.

Don’t Keep the Agenda Secret

Distributing an agenda at a meeting is a GOOD thing, as it helps keep attendees focused and aware of the meeting’s purpose. Distributing an agenda IN ADVANCE of a meeting is an even better thing, as it also allow attendees to think about the topic(s) and better prepare, instead of just showing up cold.

This is especially true for performance improvement discussions. Yes, performance improvement discussions can still serve their purpose if you allow them to be actual discussions. So, which lead-in would likely create the most constructive interaction?

  1. “See me…NOW.”
  2. “Oh, as long as we’re talking, here’s one more thing…”
  3. “At our meeting, tomorrow, I’d like you to be ready to discuss your year-to-date sales numbers and how you intend to get them back on track.”

Square Your Corners, But No Sharp Edges

I’m a fan of squared-off corners for meetings like these. Here are four that make performance improvement discussions significantly more productive:

  1. Knowing what point(s) you want to communicate, how you want to communicate them, and with what tone and tenor
  2. Noticing any digressions or re-directions that occur and refocusing the conversation back on point(s)
  3. Knowing what you need to hear from the other person(s) to insure their full and proper understanding of the point(s) you’re making (see Leadership Move #7: Managing the Message)
  4. Knowing what follow-up you want, by when

When you PREPARE for performance improvement discussions in this way, you dramatically increase the probability that your point(s) will actually be RECEIVED, as intended.

Contrast that to when you just try to wing it.

‘Less Than’ Reactions

When you don’t prepare, you’re likely to have a much less productive interaction. Why? Because when faced with criticism, most people’s go-to response is to try to refute it, discount it, or prove you wrong. So instead of a crisp, constructive, discussion, it can all-too-easily turn into a mess, stuffed with their circular, blurry, and ‘fuzzy’ logic.

Typically, such ‘less than’ reactions have two distinct ‘textures’: Soft/Furry; and Sharp/Scratchy:

  • The Soft Reaction – This is one where the employee shows surprise, shock, and disbelief, and insists that all is well and there must be some sort of misunderstanding somewhere. Whether done intentionally or not, this approach can cause you to start doubting the accuracy of your concerns and feel bad for misjudging the person and his/her behavior
  • The Sharp Reaction– This is more confrontational. Its major thrust is that you’re flat-out wrong, the employee has possibly been set-up, and while, yes, there ARE performance problems happening, but it’s due to someone else, not the person you’re talking with. Usually done intentionally, this tactic is also designed to cause you to second-guess yourself, but instead of doing it in a soft and furry way, it’s through sheer intimidation.

Regardless, each approach, in its own way, can easily get you off-topic, off-balance, and off-schedule if you let it. So don’t let it..

Confirmation of a ‘Less Than’ Reaction

Now it may not happen exactly this way for you. Many employees are quite open and receptive to having the ‘constructive dialogue’ with you. But for those who aren’t, it can get pretty messy, pretty quickly. Here’s a tell – when your ‘squared corners’ start to have ‘sharp edges’, you’ve lost control of the meeting. Then, it’s only a matter of time until you hear,

“Oh, sorry, boss, but I’ve got a meeting I’ve got to get to.”

Preparing Your Message

To be clear, it’s your right – and role – as the boss to have performance improvement conversations with your direct reports. Anything less is both unfair AND irresponsible.

So how do you stay on-point? Here are six ideas:

  1. Write down the specific performance points you want to raise and keep them, literally, in front of you throughout the conversation so you can tell if you digress.
  2. Have several data points available for each point you raise – facts, statistics, logic, what you’ve personally witnessed, etc. Just don’t rely on hearsay as it’s too easy to refute and leaves you looking foolish.
  3. Know that your examples may be challenged (and may not all be valid) which is why ideas 1 and 2 are so important. (Accept these push-backs and calmly provide your facts, statistics, logic, etc. to explain your points and implications. Then ask them for for theirs – remember, you DID give them time to prepare, so there’s really no excuse for them being unprepared.) Above all, keep your emotions in check so you don’t fall into the “because I’m the boss and I say so” trap.
  4. Know, specifically, what you need to see and hear in this conversation to confirm that the issues you’re raising are being properly heard and acknowledged to your satisfaction.
  5. Know, specifically, what you need to see and hear, subsequently to confirm that the issues you’ve raised have been attended to properly, sufficiently, and to your satisfaction.
  6. Know how you want to handle both favorable and unfavorable outcomes to your discussion so that you can respond from a place of calm and respect instead of fear, uncertainty, doubt, and officiousness.

Insuring employees know where their performance is lagging is one of the most respectful things a boss can do. Surely if it was you, you’d want to know so you could do something about it, wouldn’t you? It may not stop them from self-destructing, but it quite possibly can.

Your thoughts?