How Stress and Conflict can affect our Leadership Approach

Executive Coach Gemma Bullivant explores how our natural leadership style can shift when we are stressed, and how this awareness can help us adjust our approach and mitigate the effects of stress on our wellbeing.


Managing Conflict Consciously

We know that dealing with a stressful situation can take its toll on our wellbeing.  When things are going well, we access our own natural leadership style that people see and experience.  When conflict or stress occurs, this can change our behaviour, sometimes dramatically.

how stress and conflict can impact our leadership approach

Understanding how stress and conflict can affect how we interact with each other can make a critical difference to how that stress ultimately affects our wellbeing.  The awareness we have can give us enough context and ways to manage that interaction and mitigate the impact of that stressful situation on our own personal wellbeing, both consciously and proactively.

Our natural approach when things are going well

Let’s take an example to bring that to life.  Imagine you are about to hold a meeting with a project team you’ve been leading for the last 3 months – you have all worked incredibly hard together, and have just submitted a report and set of recommendations to the Board.  The meeting marks the end of that process, and you had planned to go to that meeting with a particular outcome in mind – celebration.

Relationship Awareness Theory suggests that, even where the purpose is the same (e.g. celebration), we are still likely to approach that meeting differently, through our own unique blend of three specific filters:

  • People — a drive to help and develop others
  • Process — a drive to establish clear and meaningful order
  • Performance — a drive to direct action and achieve results

Depending on the balance of these filters in leadership style, you might approach the meeting wanting to thank and celebrate the team’s contribution (People), praise the approach and quality of the work achieved (Process), or celebrate the results achieved (Performance). As leaders we instinctively know that we should probably cover all three areas, but we will naturally default to one filter first, and then need to consciously access other filters to ensure other perspectives are covered.

Our approach when conflict or stress occurs

When things are challenged, we are stressed, or a conflict occurs, our leadership behaviours can change, sometimes subtly and sometimes dramatically.

Imagine again that just before the meeting, you get a phone call from the Board – they are not happy with what has been submitted, and it needs urgent rework that will be challenging and difficult to deliver.  You are devastated.  All that work, and you need to shift the focus of the team meeting to making that happen.

What do you think about first? How would you respond to that news? How would that news affect the leadership behaviours you now show to your team?

Relationship Awareness Theory again suggests the filters we apply can change our behaviours:

  • Accommodate (People) – how can I get everyone on board to this new challenge?
  • Analyse (Process) – how can we validate what the Board is saying is needed?
  • Assert (Performance) – who can help me deliver this and how can I achieve the deadline?

However, to add further complexity, our response to stress and conflict differs from person to person. Someone with a predominantly People focused filter will not necessarily revert to ‘Accommodate’ behaviours when they are in conflict.  Instead, we each have a particular conflict sequence we rely on to navigate ourselves through that conflict and back to the place we feel most natural and comfortable.

This is why some people seem to act ‘out of character’ when they are stressed, while others perhaps become more extreme versions of their natural style, and some people don’t outwardly change their behaviours at all, and we have no idea they are stressed.

Knowing this and how to adjust our approach, both to our own behaviours and to others is key to managing conflict effectively, and to mitigating the effects of this stress on our wellbeing.

Managing Conflict Consciously

Here are three practical ways to consciously manage conflict and stress, to be a more effective leader and protect your personal wellbeing:

  • Embrace opposition. Be aware that people are applying a range of filters to the situation, and these will not always be aligned to yours, but are no less valid and real to them.  By accepting the relative importance of each perspective, a leader who encourages these differences will provide the opportunity for better ideas to emerge and might avoid deeper conflict from occurring that could impact their own stress and wellbeing, and reduce the effectiveness of the team as a whole.
  • Prevent conflict. While different perspectives should be welcomed, disagreement can trigger a deeper (more stressful) conflict when the people involved feel their values are being undermined. You might have a deep desire to gets results fast (an intense version of the performance filter) but others in your team might have a deep desire for method and accuracy (the Process filter) or a deep concern about harmony in the team (the People filter). To prevent conflict, we need understand the motives and values of the people around us and respect those concerns. Ensure people are given the opportunity to apply their own filter to the situation, and work to combine these into a group approach.
  • Don’t take it personally. One of the best ways to manage your response to conflict and disagreement is to see others’ behaviour through the lens of positive regard and intent. In other words, when a colleague becomes critical, is it really an attack on you or simply their way of working toward a better idea or outcome in accordance with their own filter on the world?

Gemma Bullivant


Gemma Bullivant is an Executive Coach at ECC, and accredited Core Strengths Practitioner, a strengths-based tool grounded in Relationship Awareness Theory, and designed to improve relationships, team effectiveness and individual performance.  Gemma can be reached at

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