I was speaking with the President of a non-profit Board recently and she was telling me about some conflict in her organization. This is a pretty common scenario, where board members are leaders, and have to deal with conflict, either amongst board members, or within the ranks of staff, or between board and staff.
Conflict in a workplace happens frequently enough and seem to have a change component often. Perhaps you can think of some times in workplaces where tensions were either buried or sublimated. And then comments like these arose:
“Oh he (she/they) is just afraid of change! They don’t like change…”
This is the “old” way.
But others: “He/she/they are a bull in a china shop! They want change so quickly…”
The more the President and I spoke, the more it became apparent that there had also been a lot of change that had entered their system. She had even started to wonder whether they needed help with “change management” or “conflict management.”
Over the years, I have come to see how closely related change and conflict truly are and how easy it is to think it’s an either/or equation. In fact, it’s often more about identifying where people are stuck and what the underlying causes are for the conflict.
This awareness of the relationship between conflict and change started when I had the opportunity to teach a course for Royal Roads University, in their Masters of Conflict Analysis and Management. The course was called “Analyzing and Managing Conflict and Change in Organizational Settings” and was for mid-career (and higher) leaders who were taking their Masters in Conflict Management.
Before having to gather research and reflection to teach that course, I knew there was some relationship between the field of change management and my own of conflict management, but I had only a dim awareness to start.
After teaching the course for two years of experimentation and learning with the other students/leaders in the classroom, I really got how intertwined those two concepts truly are. Change is a contributing factor to conflict – and conflict is a symptom of change. And… there is more to it!
From my perspective, to start to work with change and conflict in organizational settings, there needs to be:
1) Increased conflict competence with those who are responsible to lead, to navigate the increased turbulence because of the change(s) and to model the way as conflict competent, through the change.
2) An awareness of where one is in the change management cycle, for motivation to keep going.
3) A vision for what kind of culture is desired to be built instead, to inspire a shared vision.
With regard to where one is at in a change management cycle, when I did my research, it seemed most models change consultants used were complicated and ultimately not that practical. A change model I did find powerful, as did the students in the Master’s program, was from a book called It Starts with One – Changing Individuals Changes Organizations by Black & Gregersen.
The authors describe three key stages of change and what goes wrong at each stage. They are:
- Failure to see
- Failure to move
- Failure to finish
Knowing where you are in that change cycle can help explain where you (or your team, organization or community) are stuck and what the underlying causes for the conflict are. By the time it gets to conflict, there have been a multitude of factors feeding the system.
You and others might also find this interview from my podcast relevant to building conflict management systems: