The 51% Rule: A useful tool for ongoing conflict

Dealing with conflict is part and parcel of being a leader. And conflict in a team is a healthy thing, provided it’s focused around the right things and handled in the right way. After all, differing opinions and divergent thinking promote team performance. Without conflict, you’re likely to fall prey to groupthink, repress innovation, and discourage learning. None of these are very useful if you want to foster a productive work environment.

Effective leaders know how to deal with conflicting interests in a skilled and productive fashion. It makes sense then that developing conflict resolution skills should be high on your leadership learning agenda. For example, here’s a blog post I wrote earlier on ways you can encourage healthy debate and the ‘good’ type of conflict.

But what happens when conflict between two individual team members or two departments is ongoing? What about when both parties are ‘dug in’ and there’s a stalemate?

This is when the 51% Rule is a useful tool.  

Developed by international coach and author, Prof. Angus McLeod, the 51% Rule essentially requires us to assume 51% responsibility for any given interaction with another person.

What does that mean?

If I were less than 50% responsible for a given situation or interaction then I may well decide to do nothing.

Conversely, if I felt 100% responsible, I could exhibit neurotic behaviours and interfere in matters which don’t concern me.

But by establishing my responsibility at 51%, I put the onus on myself to act and not let the issue stew. I also reserve some responsibility for other parties.

This rule is a simple mindset that encourages a new perception or lens for looking at a conflict situation.

Why does it work?

There are those of us who take on too much responsibility. And there are those of us who tend to wait for the other person to make the first move or assign full blame to the other party for whatever quandary we’re in.

The 51% rule helps both parties find a healthy way forward to ongoing conflict.  If you’re 51% responsible for any given interaction, you can’t be locked in a stalemate.

Take Jonathan and Richard for example. They had very different communication styles and were competing for scarce resources for their respective departments. Both felt that the other person was fully responsible for the stalemate and ongoing conflict. When their boss, Sarah, introduced them to the 51% rule and asked them to work with this model and come up with potential solutions with this mindset in mind, both were able to loosen their grip on blaming the ‘other’, self-reflect on their part of the problem – and perhaps most importantly, find ways they could communicate in a manner that the other person preferred. They were also able to brainstorm creative solutions which met both of their needs better.

So the next time there’s a stalemate or ongoing conflict between two parties, explain the 51% rule to both and ask them what they can do to move forward in a positive way, assuming they are each 51% responsible for a positive outcome.

1 Comment

  1. Lynette Evans on September 16, 2020 at 9:57 am

    This is brilliant for me. I am attending/facilitating a meeting today re an issue where the other party involved want us as a service to take the full responsibility – this is clear and will really assist me to align myself well today.
    itis like the angel dropped me a gift from the heights this morning – thanks Suzi – love your thoughts/sharing and thoughts.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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