Conflict: The Role of Nurse Leaders


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We are surrounded by conflict.  Teenagers & parents are frequently in conflict about curfew time or dating choices.  Husbands & wives have conflicts related to finances, raising children, where to vacation, whose job is more important, whether or not to move, or how to squeeze the toothpaste tube; the list is close to being limitless.  Then, there are conflicts at work.  Workplace conflict is generally caused by poor communication or poor ability to control emotions.  Obviously, lots of areas for professional development.  However, not all conflicts need to be negative; in fact, some conflict is good.  No, I have not lost my mind.  I’m going to focus on work conflict.  Productive conflict is necessary for strong, healthy relationships (Patrick Lencioni).

The type of conflict that is good is where people do not agree, discuss the differences, & weigh pluses & minuses during decision making.  Being nasty to one another is not good conflict & needs to be overcome – we are adults: learn to be respectful of others & their beliefs, or preferences.  But, how do you have good conflict?  First, you have to establish trust; I have already written a bit on trust, the foundation of a cohesive team (Patrick Lencioni).  Trust needs to be established prior to even thinking of encouraging conflict.

Conflict doesn’t mean that someone has to be right & someone else has to be wrong.  It doesn’t mean holding grudges, or not speaking to someone, & it definitely does not include bullying.  Conflict must focus on ideas & concepts, & must avoid mean-spirited accusations or personal attacks (Patrick Lencioni, p. 202).  Conflict means you have to act like an adult – I think – sometimes adults don’t act in a way to be recommended.  But, I think you know what I mean.  Politeness, respect, no yelling, no swearing; but, that does not mean you cannot be passionate.  But, you must keep an open mind.  “Seek first to understand” Stephen Covey; is a good phrase to remember & to heed.  What does the other person mean, think, & why?  Sometimes when you understand these things you will find you are not so far apart.

When planning a change someone needs to share all that could go wrong.  Someone needs to think about how to prepare for what could go wrong, & try to prevent errors.  Someone also needs to be able to share all the positive things that the change will contribute to the work environment.  Conflict is an opportunity to discuss new ideas, to use imagination, & creativity when change is about to occur.  Change is inevitable; but, conflict often goes hand in hand with change, so why not make the best of it & ensure the change will be positive & successful.

What do you do when you don’t agree with your leader?   Well, unless the leader/boss is dishonest, unethical, devious, or abusive you need to hang in & find a way to get along.  Stephen Covey, & Kouzes & Posner suggest “Seek to Understand”.  Of course we know this is easier said than done.  However, disagreeing with your leader/boss, or co-worker is an opportunity for you to develop your leadership & communication skills; after all there will always be someone with whom we do not agree.  Kouzes & Posner (2006) suggest that serious conflict gives you the opportunity to learn: to learn about yourself.  Considering that you cannot change anyone other than yourself, it is a good idea to learn about yourself.  Additionally, being open minded, non-judgmental, & respectful are characteristics you might also want to develop.

Nursing includes conflict.  Conflict with other nurses, with physicians, with other members of the healthcare team, with patients, with families, & with anyone else with whom you have contact.  Dealing with conflict is barely touched on in nursing education.  Nursing leaders need to be responsible for guiding nurses to communicate effectively, to learn to work as a team, & to deal with conflict in a constructive manner.  According to Patrick Lencioni (2002), one of the hardest things for leaders is “the desire to protect members from harm” (p. 206).  Encouraging healthy conflict requires members to develop coping skills.  As hard as it might be for the leader to not step in to resolve the conflict, he or she must allow the members to come to a resolution on their own.  This is a big, ongoing job for anyone.  However, the nursing leader, or any leader, must work with employees to establish what is & what is not acceptable behaviour.  Mike Myatt, Feb. 22, 2012 referring to conflict writes “It is essential for organizational health and performance that conflict be accepted and addressed through effective conflict resolution processes”.

Nursing leaders who are in formal leadership roles, such as unit manager, often have so many meetings to attend they have very little time to lead professional development.  If that is the case, maybe it is time to consider bringing someone in to do such training.  Maybe one of the nurses has an interest, or additional education, in team building & conflict resolution & would be willing to lead this professional development.  Regardless of how it is done, learning how to deal with conflict effectively is necessary.  Remember, conflict can be good.  Nursing leaders must learn how to model this practice & encourage good conflict within their teams.


Lencioni, Patrick. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA

Myatt, Mike. (2012). Five Keys of Dealing with Workplace Conflict