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Each time I teach on the subject of conflict I learn something new.  Life is full of case studies.

At a recent client session with a management team I began with a “checkered flag/yellow flag” exercise where everyone shares a victory and a caution within their area of the business.  To the person, all of the yellow flag issues involved people and some kind of conflict.   

Whenever we find ourselves working with others to create something of value, conflict – however large or small – is all but guaranteed.    

But so what?  That’s just the messy middle – that place in every business, project and team with less-than-ideal mindsets, behaviors and outcomes that makes things just a bit tricky.  And messy.  We experience that messiness as conflict.

I’ll give you a few examples.

  • The fickleness of a key client keeps you from investing in resources for their benefit.  Yet they are important to your portfolio.
  • One of your managers tends to be reactive to changes in plans in ways that taxes your ability to be agile amid shifting workloads.
  • You sense your top sales rep is also a bully among peers because you often detect a disdain for him within the team.
  • Your creative team is often like a herd of kittens, full of wonderful ideas but with a chronic lateness in their final deliverables.
  • The boss is so headstrong that the running joke uses references to a certain country dictator.

In each of these there is not necessarily a fatal flaw.  Yet the situations make things messy.

How Do You Handle Messy Middles?

How we respond to the messy middles depends a great deal on our behavioral temperaments – those nature/nurture formations about our personalities that reflect our mental models about conflict, relationships, etc. For example:

  • Those who are more dominant in their style can tend to bulldoze through conflict, often leaving collateral damage along the way.
  • Those who are more personally engaging can sometimes tame the conflict through charm but without addressing the underlying issues that still need attention.
  • Those who are more wired to maintain status quo will tend to altogether avoid conflict.
  • Those who are or rule driven and compliant may tend to just take it over and try to fix things without even engaging the conflict, building quite a lot of resentment along the way.

Messy Is Where The Magic Happens

You can’t build anything of value without messiness.  Children become adults through failures and correction.  Gourmet meals mean dirty dishes.  At any construction site you’ll find mud and refuse.

I remember one time in my community a large construction project had just begun.  In a letter to the editor of the local newspaper an indignant resident blasted the owner for making such a mess.  “Look at what you’ve done to our neighborhood!  I hope you are satisfied!” The poor woman could only see the momentary mess, and lost all sight of the fact that the resulting project would actually beautify the neighborhood.

Such shortsightedness can creep into our mindset unless we have developed an understanding of the ‘messy middle’ concept as it relates to anything we do of value in our businesses.

Here are three guiding principles for developing your capacity as a leader for managing your messy middles.

1. Check Your Baseline Understanding of People

We tend toward a polarized view of people that says they are basically good, or basically bad.  That is a great question, but it’s the wrong question.  Forget the philosophy and realize that a person or a team can be a genius one moment and an idiot the next. 

What matters in leadership is how you will respond to either moment in such ways that keep drawing them toward a shared vision and goal.  Messiness usually exists not because something is bad wrong, but because someone is abundantly human – with both good and bad potential at work.

Even if you have to replace someone on your team, do so knowing that the next person will also contain their own paradoxical combination of brilliance and baloney.

2. Check your Baseline Understanding of Conflict

How we deal with conflict has it roots in our experiences of conflict going way back.  Those experiences can create deeply ingrained filters for how we respond to things that don’t go our way.

We often confuse disagreement with conflict and then conflict with offense.  The gut reaction then tends to be either combative or to disengage, even if in our minds.  Sometimes the hidden mental reactions to conflict can be the most undermining and dangerous.

Think about this, if a part of your workforce is even mentally resistant or disengaged, you really have fewer people showing up for work than the number actually on the payroll.  That is bad for business.

Conflicts are opportunities not obstacles.  Embrace them in that way and they become business building tools that will improve your value to others.

3. Learn to Deal With It

People can be quirky, moody, inconsistent and stubborn.  As leaders we must quite literally learn to deal with it.  And not by killing it or ignoring it.  Rather the art of leading people calls out of us a need to separate people and emotion from the substance of issues. 

It also calls for us to suspend judgements in our conversations so that objective information gets to us without being edited by filters – theirs or ours.  Finally it requires of us that we handle conflict – whether big or small – with the mindset that it is normal.  Nothing is bad wrong.  It’s just human beings working with human doings.

A true mark of leadership is the capacity to encourage human beings through the trials of human doings.

If you want to develop and maintain a leadership effectiveness that is behind successful business building, then check your understanding of people, your paradigm of conflict, and your capacity for handling both.

If you email me ( I will send you a resource page that can help in that regard.

Make Life Count