Conflict – Don’t Panic. Engage.


Many organisations are fine with collaboration and change as long as there is no conflict.  Once the conflict arises, everyone panics. Panic creates the worst reactions because it often leads to these strategies:

  • Freeze: pretending there is no conflict and hoping it fades away
  • Fight: Wading in to the conflict to impose the ‘right’ answer
  • Flight: Shutting down the conversation or even the whole change or collaboration

A panicked response is particularly likely if the conflict arises around one of the long threatening fault lines in the organisation e.g. between sales and marketing, between business and IT, between frontline employees and management, etc. Every organisation has its undiscussables and they are where leadership, change and collaboration begins to fail.

Don’t panic.  Celebrate and engage to shape the conflict into its most constructive form – deep engagement.

Conflict is the first sign of real engagement.  Until conflict occurs, everyone is assuming the collaboration or change is not worth the effort of a fight.

Conflict is also how you learn.  Well managed conflict helps share context between groups.  It will surface feedback and learnings. It helps you find the people to whom the activity really matters. Conflict is where you get to the real questions to be answered.  There is a good chance the real issue lies somewhere in that organisational fault line that everybody knows and nobody wants to discuss.

Any scriptwriter will tell you that every screenplay is driven by conflict.  Humans crave conflict.  Our stories are full of conflict.  We devote a huge amount of our attention to it. All the gossip in your office will relate to stories of conflict and their meaning for the behaviour of others or the culture of the organisation.  Successful change and collaboration needs this energy for human engagement.

So next time conflict breaks out around a change or a collaboration, recognise it as a good sign.  Engage to make it a constructive conversation:

  • Show genuine & deep interest in people’s views as to how to learn and improve
  • Tease out people’s purposes, concerns and context
  • Shift the discussion from opinions toward facts
  • Look for common ground and agreed actions. 
  • Accept that you can’t make every one happy.
  • Demonstrate change in your approach based on what you learn

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