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

5 Big Shifts – Chaos is Human

When you connect many people, you are reminded of a very human form of chaos. Things just cease to happen in the orderly way that you might expect. It is human nature:

  • to seek purpose,
  • to connect and share knowledge with others
  • to seek to make a difference.

Once we are connected, these natural human needs begin to take over reshaping efforts to structure relationships. 

Efforts to Control Chaos are Failing

So many of the ideologies and management approaches of human history have been efforts to control and shape these three natural human behaviours. They have been concerned to restrict their potential to drive change and create chaos. These ideologies rely on asymmetries of power and information to enforce their approaches.

Still solving problems of a pre-modern era, we still try to work against the grain of human behaviour:  

  • We seek to structure out the mess of human communication through silos, tools, meetings, formats which leads to a focus on the process over the conversation
  • We define teams, roles, hierarchies, discretion and decision rights with exacting detail down to the exact titles people can use to describe themselves and the social indicators in each role.
  • We specific processes in exacting detail in the hope that we can dictate exactly how that process will be best executed by each person in every case without discretion
  • We motivate people with top-down orders, objectives, rules, measurement, financial incentives and threats of exclusion  

Complexity, uncertainty and disruption are on the rise despite our best efforts. These techniques are increasingly seen to stifle innovation, to waste human potential and to frustrate motivation of vital talent.

Working with the Chaos

Human nature is not changing any time soon. Our technologies will continue to enhance our connection and opportunities for expression and collaboration. The potential for failure of traditional techniques will worsen with time.  

We need to work with human nature. Working with our human nature requires us to accept some fundamental shifts: 

  • Knowing to Learning:  We need to move from a view that experts have the stock of knowledge that they require. The model of knowing everything never worked. We need to embrace knowledge as a flow, constantly being enhanced, made relevant again and a part of a constant exercise of learning. 
  • Motivating to Inspiring: We need to engage around purpose and help people to see how they realise their goals and potential as part of collective activities and group goals.
  • Supervising to Enabling: Build people’s capability for more complex tasks rather than trying to simplify the tasks to make supervision, direction and measurement easier. Engage people in developing the ability to produce better outcomes that take them where they want to go.
  • Controlling to Engaging:  The role of leaders is not to direct but to shape the conversations to provide context for good decisions and ensure that all the stakeholders are appropriately engaged. Leaders also help the community agree the level of urgency for change and overcome change and collaboration barriers.
  • Inside-out to Outside-in: Understand the environment, community customer and other stakeholder views as you form your own. Create an organisation and people that engage with their communities. Be responsive.

Don’t Burn Platforms

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead. 
– Casabianca by Felicia Dorothea Hermans

That boy didn’t jump ship. Never again use the phrase ‘burning platform’ to describe motivation for change. 

A Bad Metaphor

Spend much time creating change and someone will ask ‘but is there a burning platform?’  This question is usually asked:

(a) to demonstrate their knowledge of change management jargon and

(b) to insinuate there is no compelling rationale for the change.

The burning platform metaphor comes from a story of oil workers in the North Sea who confronted with certain death by fire, jumped to a likely death by freezing water. It is often attributed to the fire on the Piper Alpha.  That specific burning platform was made much worse by a belief that employees on another platform had that they were not allowed to stop the flow of oils and gas into a fire that was killing their colleagues. They lacked the discretion to do the obvious.

Need I go on. It is a really bad metaphor. Now never use it again.

The Wrong Mindset

The mindset behind the burning platform metaphor is no way to view real change.  The assumption is nobody will change without something akin to threat to their life and the best anyone need offer is a slight improvement.

Burning platform is embedded in a view of the world where smart management needs to get dumb employees to do something they don’t want to do. Like the boy in the poem above, employees loyally await orders before acting (& need prodding even then).  The same logic drives many performance management and incentive schemes.

Real Urgency Comes from Choice

A burning platform is often described as the first of Kotter’s 8 steps of change. It is not. The first step is ‘Create a sense of urgency’. A change imperative matters.  However, there are far better and more constructive senses of urgency than a risk appetite bending fear of certain death. Constructive urgency comes from choice and requires an active and creative engagement. Examples of constructive imperatives include:

  • Fulfilling a personal purpose
  • Realising one’s potential
  • Benefiting others
  • Collaborating with others
  • Collectively agreeing a path forward as a group
  • Autonomy & Accountability for achieving personal or collective goals, and even
  • A well reasoned request from a colleague who respects them and whom they respect

Start with a Conversation

However, to advance a change using any of these motivations you will need to engage people in conversation, to address their views, questions and concerns and connect them personally & collectively to change. You need to respect that people agree to change.  You don’t get to change them.  That’s hard work and it respects their intelligence, effort and contribution. Unfortunately, that’s how change usually works.

Stop dreaming you can light a fire under your people. You can’t. They are smart enough to leave before you get the chance to play arsonist.

A simple conversation about change is far more powerful. People are fired by respect, accountability and opportunity.

Put down the matches.

Too United We Fall

Uniting the like-minded agents of change is a common first step in creating change. Too much unity of the like-minded is also a path to failure.

Undoubtedly change agents benefit from connection, collaboration and collective force. The life of a change agent can be a lonely one. Having others to share the load matters.

Building an overly united collective of people equally oriented to change has its dangers for the success of any change:

Shared Context: People embrace ideas when they share sufficient context to understand them. Uniting a group of change agents can rapidly accelerate the sharing of knowledge within the group. Soon that group will have lost some shared context with those that need to embrace change.
Us & Them: Silos are inevitable in any attempt to draw a ring around a group united in purpose. Without great care, unity will also come at a cost of factionalism as people seek out those who hold views of those closer to their own. All of this connection is in the opposite direction to the external engagement that drives change.
Grand Plans: United we dream. We plan lots of steps without engaging those who must join us in the changes. United we dream. Dreams inspire, but don’t deliver.
Power of Conflict: Interaction, debate and conflict helps keeps ideas evolving and relevant. Flaws appear when ideas are challenged and when ideas are tested by diverse views. Unity will reduce conflict. No change prospers by talking only to the converted.
Compromise: Surrounded by those equally convinced, compromise can feel weak. Standing ground against the system looks like an option and is commonly raised. This gesture of pulling rank on the system may come with a giddy sense of opportunity but is actually a failure, alienating others and preventing further progress to change. Opting back-in later is always challenging.

So how do you get the benefits of greater connection without the risks?

Share your story: Work out loud. Keep putting ideas out and discussing them widely
Keep the doors open: Constantly engage with new people, both like-minded, neutral and opponents. Any time your ideas are not being disturbed once a day you are in an echo chamber.
Favour unity of purpose & action over dogma: People only need to be agreed enough on the direction to work together. The change agents don’t need to agree each last point of implementation yet. Details will come in time.