Many of us will go to great lengths to avoid conflict. Even reading the word can, for some, stimulate powerful feelings of discomfort or anxiety.
With such onerous associations, it’s no wonder why organizations and individuals minimize or outright ignore conflict. Many would prefer a world free of conflict entirely: a place where agreement reigns and we live harmoniously, safe within the universal clarity of our choices.
But not all forms of conflict are negative. In this section, we will explore the ways in which conflict is an essential resource for mobilizing others to meet the demands of adaptive work.
Reacting to Conflict
By thinking politically, we’ve seen how essential it is to identify and work with differences in perspective, and this is the context we’ll use to explore conflict: the conditions and state resulting from these differences.
How do we mobilize stakeholders and factions when there is disagreement about what the work is and how it should be accomplished?
Let’s first consider some common reactions to conflict. Which of the following have you experienced?
Common Reactions to Conflict
1. INACTION AS ACTION
Systems often reward inaction, which helps maintain the status quo. Keeping conflict hidden might be the easiest path, but it leaves the organization to identify and respond to the potential losses that accompany change, not to mention the new learning that can be produced by orchestrating well the conflicting perspectives.
2. APPEAL TO AUTHORITY
Amidst conflict, we look to those with formal authority to resolve order, but such actions to reestablish calm can hinder the organization’s ability to adapt.
3. FIGHT OR FLIGHT
Like the acute stress response of the human body, parties within a system can respond to conflict by going on the offensive (such as blaming others) or by going out of their way to avoid it.
A Process for Mobilizing Learning
We use the word orchestrating to highlight the creative capacity of people in tension generated by drawing attention to different perspectives at work within a system. Like a composer who uses dissonance (a component and tool in the craft of creating harmony) to add complexity and forward momentum to a piece of music, those who exercise leadership must orchestrate conflict within an organizational system to generate dynamism and innovative ideas by surfacing these key differences.
By failing to work with conflict, and the potential losses represented, we fail to engage all parties and perspectives and lose creative tension.
The following strategies outline a process for orchestrating conflict. Although they are presented as a linear process, the adoption of any of the steps can help you begin the process of using conflict as a resource.
A Process for Mobilizing Learning
1. DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Prepare before bringing factions together. Do you understand their perspectives? What do they stand to lose? What learning, i.e., changes in stakes and perspective, need to occur? Speaking with individuals separately can also provide invaluable insight and help you gain informal authority.
2. GATHER ALL VIEWS
Let each faction speak for itself. How do they view the work of resolving the shared adaptive challenge? What are their perspectives and commitments, and to what extent do they own the need to change, too?
3. CREATE, SHARE, AND ENFORCE GROUND RULES
Establishing or asking for clear and consistent ground rules can help depersonalize the process and keep the work at the center. Try to get rules and norms for the group established early. For example, what information is confidential? Who sets the agenda and how?
4. ORCHESTRATE CONFLICT
Share out the competing perspectives, values, and competencies. As perspectives emerge, factions will recognize the conflicts and the heat will increase. Part of being an orchestrator involves recognizing when participants are avoiding conflict. Look for the clues. Are individuals minimizing the differences among factions? Are they ignoring the issue entirely using common work avoidance strategies like blame or scapegoating? Remind participants that it’s your role to surface and discuss these tensions.
5. PROMOTE HONESTY ABOUT LOSSES
Rather than minimizing loss, help the group recognize and reflect on what each faction stands to lose and what the implications might be for their various constituents. How might constituents react?
How will you address the challenge? Generate multiple experiments to test out potential solutions. Remember to build consensus around what will be tested and don’t grow too attached to any one idea or solution. The goal is to learn as much as possible, and a failed experiment can teach you a lot.
7. HARNESS THE POWER OF PEER CONSULTING
We learn better together. Encourage individuals to seek out the advice of peers throughout the Get on the Balcony process. By modeling this behavior, you help establish new norms of collaboration that value diagnostic work and action equally.
Recognizing Common Patterns – Technical Work
We’ve discussed how essential conflict can be to exercising leadership. Before exploring additional strategies, let’s consider some of the common patterns generated by different types of work.
Knowing these generalized patterns will help you better diagnose your own system.
We’ll start by introducing a new term: disequilibrium. Here we use disequilibrium to describe the state of disruption in an organizational system. Conflict generates disequilibrium, but it is not the only input. (Additional inputs could be the fear, confusion, and uncertainty of a high-stakes crisis, like the coronavirus crisis.) Although we are specifically focusing on the role of conflict (as a tool), we will use the broader disequilibrium term when analyzing patterns.
We’ve seen how drawing a system using a stakeholder map can reveal crucial information about stakeholders, factions, and their perspectives. Let’s apply similar visualization techniques to our understanding of disequilibrium patterns.
Consider the following blank graph which plots time (x axis) versus disequilibrium (y axis).
First, we’ll consider technical problems.
Knowing what you now know about the characteristics of technical work, how might you plot the changing level of disequilibrium over time? When might disequilibrium be highest? When might it be lowest? How might the level change over time?
Recognizing Common Patterns – Adaptive Work
Based on our understanding of adaptive challenges and how they differ from technical problems, we would expect the disequilibrium patterns generated to be different, and they are.
With both technical and adaptive problems, disequilibrium is triggered by the onset of the problematic situation. If the situation is severe, the spike of disequilibrium may be very high. Now, if the problem is technical, then the immediate problem-solving response of people in the organization will be sufficient to solve the problem and restore equilibrium, sometimes quite rapidly, as is shown in the following example.
For more context, consider the example of a medical injury, such as a broken arm. Disequilibrium spikes when the accident happens, but, after seeking medical care, it decreases rapidly as diagnosis and care are received.
It’s worth noting that technical work can 1) generate lots of disequilibrium and 2) be slow to decrease, depending on the complexity or severity of the problem.
However, the key point to consider is that disequilibrium operates very differently in adaptive contexts, where the problem and / or the solution is unclear (and individuals must develop new capacity and confront losses in order to meet the demands of the situation).
This is where conflict becomes an essential resource: a way to mobilize multi-party learning by getting people with different viewpoints to engage with one another.
Increasing the Heat
Leading adaptive work — mobilizing people to face into a tough problem and learn from their differences to find new solutions — is like cooking with a pressure cooker. If you keep the heat too low, then nothing will cook. Conversely, if you turn the heat up too high, then people will be unable to tolerate the levels.
To lead, one has to regulate the level of disequilibrium to keep the parties within the productive range of stress, which is bounded by the threshold of learning at the bottom (the minimal level needed to mobilize new learning) and the limit of tolerance at the top (the maximum level parties can endure before retreating from the problem and each other).
But how do you regulate disequilibrium effectively? Let’s look first at strategies for increasing the heat.
Strategies for Increasing the Heat
1. DIRECT THE FOCUS OF ATTENTION TO THE TOUGH ISSUES
Imagine being in a meeting where the most important decision or topic keeps getting delayed or ignored. This habit of ignoring the difficult conversations is all too common.
2. SURFACE CONFLICTS
Resist the temptation to conceal or minimize disagreement. Surfacing different perspectives is an essential part of understanding the distribution of work around the different stakeholders — the different adjustments and new ways of thinking or behaving that each party may need to do.
3. ALLOW PROVOCATIVE STATEMENTS
Language can be a powerful tool for managing the heat. Don’t be afraid of statements that will stimulate strong responses.
4. KNOW AND USE THE ROOM’S DYNAMICS
Rather than ignoring or operating in fear of the potential stresses that may emerge in the room, use it to your advantage. This starts with listening and observing. If certain parties appear especially at odds, use that to highlight the core issues.
5. EXCEED COMFORT LEVELS
Turning up the heat means challenging individual comfort levels. This is especially true for allocating responsibility. Encourage others to not play it safe when it comes to owning their part of the work to be done.
Decreasing the Heat
Decreasing the heat is required when your group exceeds the limit of tolerance.
Recognizing when that limit has been exceeded can be challenging, especially since individuals have different comfort levels with conflict and the potential losses of change for them and their constituents.
If you think your group has exceeded the limit of tolerance, you might employ one or more of the following strategies.
Strategies for Decreasing the Heat
REDIRECT FOCUS TO TECHNICAL WORK
Most challenging situations are a mix of technical problems and adaptive challenges, so you can reduce the heat by returning the focus of attention to the technical components of the problem situation.
2. ASSUME RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE TOUGH ISSUES
If you have an authority position, you can assume responsibility for solving the situation and buy time for people to acclimate to the tough issues (and time for you to find a new approach to engage them in their role in meeting the challenge).
3. DIVIDE, DISTRIBUTE, AND PACE THE WORK
People need time to do adaptive work — time to emotionally accept the losses they may need to sustain, and time to experiment through trial and error to find a successful and innovative adaptation. So breaking the work into smaller parts, distributing it differently according to the capacity of each party, and pacing the rate of change are all ways to reduce the level of stress.
4. PAUSE AND TAKE BREAKS
Adaptive work is taxing because emotional and innovative work is stressful. As a consequence, people need pauses and rest. There is a reason why many religious traditions have a means to pause and reflect through daily practices or a weekly sabbath. As it is said in surgery, you move faster by moving slower and more carefully.
5. CREATE MORE STRUCTURES AND PROCESSES FOR WORKING ON THE CHALLENGE
People generally feel less stressed when they feel oriented in a stressful situation to their role or job, so creating more structures and processes for problem-solving will calm people down.