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Embracing Conflict

I recently submitted an article to the Human Resource Institute of Alberta entitled – Embracing Conflict in Change Management.  Here is the full article.

“Embracing conflict can become a joy when we know that irritation and frustration can lead to growth and fascination” Thomas F. Crum.

Wikipedia states Change Management is an approach to shifting/transitioning individuals, teams, and organizations from a current state to a desired future state. It is an organizational process aimed at helping stakeholders to accept changes in their business environment.

Accepting change in our business environments is often difficult and inherently subjects organizations to conflict and turmoil. Each of us has different hopes, fears, perspectives, and ideas about how we want to thrive in the workplace.  Change can magnify these fears and hopes by creating uncertainty in our work environment. This uncertainty often presents itself as resistance to the proposed change and Change Managers may unwisely focus on how they can overcome this resistance.  They may attempt to convince employees through presentations and top-down persuasion that a change is desirable and unintentionally initiate a struggle.

The Change Management process often strives to eliminate conflict instead of embracing conflict and its beneficial outcomes. Conflict is uncomfortable, but brings about opportunities for dialogue, exchange and building understanding. The existence of conflict does not hurt a Change Management project; an organization’s inability to support conflict in a constructive manner causes the most damage. When a Change Management Project fails to manage conflict, the energy and creativity that should be focused on key activities such as transition, leadership, or new opportunities gets spent on internal battles, turf wars, and power struggles. Dealing with conflict efficiently and directly will help build trust and sustain relationships among key stakeholders and working teams. Conflict provides an opening to collaborative solutions and can result in all stakeholders developing more respectful relationships in the longer term.

Providing a process to acknowledge employees fears, hopes and perspectives is a first step in embracing conflict within organizations. Organizations need to consider how they will be able to present a safe space for communication where all parties can have their voices freely heard on an equal footing to help build mutual understanding. This could look like a World-Café style format where affected employees can share their thoughts regarding the impact of the change on themselves and their work. Emotions may run high so create guidelines for employees to allow them to express these emotions in an acceptable manner. It’s important that they have a “voice” in the process, especially if they do not have a say in the change being imposed upon them.

Secondly, identify the issues that have come forward. Portray these issues, or needs in their base form. Is it about safety, trust, communication, efficiency? Take the opportunity to create dialogue to build understanding around these needs. It’s not about getting agreement or proving who’s right and who’s wrong, it’s about taking time to dig deeper. Peter Senge states in the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook “Dialogue is not merely a set of techniques for improving organizations, enhancing communications, building consensus or solving problems. The process of dialogue encourages people to develop a shared intention for inquiry. It is best to approach dialogue with no result in mind, but with the intention of developing deeper inquiry, wherever it leads you.” Out of this dialogue will emerge more creative and sustainable solutions for moving forward through change.

Fostering an organizational environment to receive change openly and encourage differences of opinion is a good move to enable effective dialogue. Make differences the expectation and healthy discussion about issues and ideas the norm. When people can disagree with each other and promote different ideas, your organization is healthier. Leaders, teams and individuals should be encouraged to undertake these actions.

I came across a useful example in a Psychometric White Paper – “ Making Conflict Management a Strategic Advantage” by Kenneth W. Thomas, Ph.D. It focuses on the CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch. “Jack Welch practiced collaboration at GE, championing the usefulness of substantive disagreement in reaching creative decisions. He had inherited a culture that he called “superficial congeniality,” in which people didn’t tell each other the truth. Welch recognized that conflict was inevitable in dealing with novel and complex decisions and that conflicting views contained information that needed to be harvested and incorporated into decisions. For Welch, encouraging candor, listening to conflicting views, and incorporating those views into decisions were all part of making his organization “boundaryless”—ensuring the free flow of information throughout the organization. Welch made it unacceptable to ignore or suppress conflicting views. He created 360-degree appraisals, town meetings, and other mechanisms that required managers to take in this sort of information. Welch also “walked the talk” by modeling the openness he advocated, providing visible examples to help seed the new culture he promoted. While previously business meetings had been carefully scripted to avoid embarrassing the CEO, Welch insisted on unscripted informality and invited questions and candid discussion, encouraging people to “let ’er rip.” He also participated in give and-take sessions with junior and middle managers at GE’s management development center at Crotonville”

Organizations with a well defined Conflict Management system support conflict in a constructive manner and tend to be more successful with their Change Management initiatives. Use a collaborative process to analyze and assess how the ‘conflict culture’ of your organization is affecting leadership, dialogue, engagement and change. Establish systems to embrace conflict which will engage employees at all levels, enable leaders to evolve and effectively integrate change. Conflict resolution training, personal and team dynamics assessments, peer mediation, skilled facilitation, negotiation, policies, guidelines and an ombudsperson role can all be implemented to develop a new way forward

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