Getting Through Organizational Conflict: The 8 Steps

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Practice of Adaptive Leadership" by Ronald A. Heifetz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Have you ever dealt with conflict at an organizational level? How did it manifest? What was the underlying issue?

Surfacing organizational conflict is a sign of unarticulated and unacknowledged differences in values and points of view. It won’t be possible to function effectively until this information comes to light and people understand the conflict’s underlying issues.

In this article, we’ll look at eight steps for getting through organizational conflict: how to bring it to light and how to resolve it constructively.

Managing Organizational Conflict

Conflict is uncomfortable, and as a result, many people and organizations respond to it using the following ineffective methods:

  • Inaction. The organization encourages people to maintain the status quo. As a result, the organization doesn’t change or adapt.
  • Fight or flight. To avoid tolerating the conflict and finding a resolution, some factions leave, and others bluster or blame.
  • Rely on leaders. Often, people and organizations expect leaders to fix the conflict.

The 8 Steps for Resolving Conflict

There are eight steps to successfully bringing up and powering through organizational conflict:

1. Do your research. Before bringing up the conflict, talk to all the parties involved, find out their political alignment, and develop informal authority with them. Even in this early stage, you’ll probably encounter antagonism: When you meet with your “enemies,” they may not treat you nicely, and your allies may judge you for even talking to enemies.

2. Set the scene. Create an agenda for the meeting in which you’ll announce the conflict and come up with rules that help people feel safe (for example, expectations of confidentiality). At the beginning of the meeting, tell everyone to focus on work, not personal issues. As a warm-up, you might get the team to practice dealing with conflict by looking at a case study.

3. In the meeting, invite people to state their perspectives. Ask everyone for their opinion on the adaptive challenge and to state their values.

4. State the conflict. Articulate the differences between the values everyone has just stated. This is when people will start to get uncomfortable because they realize losses are inevitable. If they try to avoid conflict, keep it at the forefront by reminding them what you’re all trying to do—make a necessary adaptive change for the better. 

Use whatever communication style is appropriate when addressing the conflict. If your natural communication style isn’t appropriate when dealing with a particular person, use a different one. 

  • For example, if you’re normally calm but you need to yell at someone to keep them in the room, do it.

5. Encourage reflection on loss. Ask everyone to think about how the losses they might suffer, and others might suffer, will affect them and their constituents. Ask how everyone can respond to the losses. You can give them anywhere between hours and months to reflect on and come to terms with their losses.

6. Establish experiments. With the help of the group, come up with experiments for both managing the adaptive change and for handling constituents, particularly those who have experienced loss. Everyone should agree on the experiments and commit to sharing the results at a later time so they can learn from each other’s difficulties.

7. Set up peer consulting. As the parties start to address adaptive change by experimenting and talking to their constituents, they should share the difficulties they encounter with each other so everyone can learn and adapt their experiments to address resistance. The goal is for everyone to share each other’s problems and work together, regardless of which side of the conflict they were originally on.

8. Don’t judge people for their reasons for eventually agreeing to your initiative. Your goal is to make an adaptive change, not to make everyone pure of heart—it doesn’t matter if someone only supports your initiative for selfish reasons (Shortform example: The change harms an enemy).

Strengthen Cohesive Forces With An Off-Site Retreat

Even amid conflict, every group of people has forces that bring them together. Imagine these forces like the shell of a pressure cooker—they create a structured internal space (in which people can work at an adaptive challenge) that can withstand a certain amount of pressure (conflict). 

How to strengthen or create new cohesive forces to help spur adaptive change varies depending on culture, but developing the following attributes will improve the cohesive forces of almost any group:

  • The same language
  • The same values and mission
  • Experience working with each other
  • Bonds with peers
  • Trust in authority and the organizational chart
  • A safe environment, such as comfortable office furniture and ground rules about conduct

An off-site retreat is another effective “pressure cooker” because it provides a new environment and time to work on a problem without daily responsibilities getting in the way. To host an effective retreat, there are some to-dos before and during it:

Before

To prepare for the off-site, you need to:

1. Choose whom to invite. There’s a balance between inviting more and fewer people. If a problem is urgent, you should invite only a small group because it’s easier to solve problems with fewer people (the more people you invite, the more differing and strong opinions they’ll have, and people may feel too overwhelmed to learn from each other). 

If the problem is adaptive, you should include more people because:

  • It builds long-term adaptive capacity.
  • Including more people develops your relationship with them, which will increase your informal authority.
  • If you don’t include enough people, you’ll miss some perspectives, and you might not come up with the best solution. Or, the people who have been left out will be offended and sabotage your initiative. 

If you’re going to invite only a small group, you must keep in mind whose voices you’re missing. No matter who you choose to invite, people at the office will gossip about who made the list and who didn’t. 

Keep in mind the following questions when choosing attendees:

  • Which individuals need to learn which skills to help solve the adaptive challenge?
  • Who represents a faction, and does this faction need to change for the adaptive challenge as a whole to succeed?
  • Who’s so disruptive that if you invited them, they’d stall the whole group?
  • Who will be important to consult in the long-term, but doesn’t need to be involved just yet?

2. Coach the senior leader. During the off-site, the senior leader should:

  • Be indistinguishable from anyone else to encourage the freest discussion.
  • Lead by example. Everyone will take their cues on how to behave from the senior leader. If she acts the same way she does in the office, people will act the same way they normally act in the office. If she treats the off-site like it’s a waste of time (for example, she falls asleep while others are talking), everyone else will treat it that way too. 

3. Conduct preparatory interviews. Talk to the participants individually to discover their perspective on the off-site—why do they think it was called, and do they think the agenda items are important? What do they expect will happen, and how would they define a successful off-site?

During

During the off-site, do the following:

1. Pay attention to what happens at the start of the event. This will give you clues about the group’s tone, mood, and defaults. 

  • For example, if someone jokes that it feels weird not to have the boss at the head of the table, this tells you that people are used to looking to her for guidance.

2. Adopt new norms. Since the off-site has a different purpose (resolve conflict) than office work (daily responsibilities), use different ways of doing work and interacting with each other to reinforce these differences. 

  • For example, if people don’t use first names in the office, try using first names at the off-site.

3. Regulate the intensity and pressure. The conflict has to provide enough pressure and discomfort to motivate people to solve it, but if it gets too intense, people will shut down or run. (Groups that are used to working together, and are used to adaptive pressure, can tolerate higher intensity.)

Here’s how you can increase the pressure when you see people losing motivation:

  • Push people to focus on the hard questions.
  • Bring up conflict.
  • Assign people tough responsibilities that are outside of their comfort zone.
  • Let people make inflammatory remarks.
  • Call people on their work- and conflict-avoidance. For example, if you notice someone trying to scapegoat someone else, bring up the behavior.

Here’s how to decrease pressure when you see people starting to get so emotional they can’t function:

  • Push people to focus on the easy parts of the problems, such as the technical parts.
  • Help people get a handle on the problem by breaking it down and assigning roles.
  • Keep the tough responsibilities for yourself (temporarily).
  • Let people use work-avoidance techniques or even employ them yourself. For example, you might tell a joke when it seems like people need a break.
  • Challenge the status quo slowly.

Don’t Take Over

Whenever there’s an adaptive problem, there’s going to be a lot of pressure on you, as the leader, to deal with it yourself. This pressure comes from two sources:

  1. The people experiencing the problem. They expect leaders to restore balance and give them clear directions.
  2. Yourself. Being skilled at resolving problems was probably a part of how you won your leadership position, and you’re used to and comfortable with it.

Don’t succumb to this pressure—push people to work through the problem themselves. This is how they build adaptive capacity.

Getting Through Organizational Conflict: The 8 Steps

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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