Overcoming Conflict Through Action

We typically work with companies undergoing some form of change. Small change, big change. Change driven from internal forces, from external forces, and oftentimes both. Conflict and resistance are inevitable in change. But, neither are inherently negative and they should not be reasons to avoid change. Instead, they should be effectively managed. But, to manage conflict and resistance, you must understand it.

In a July 2017 article in the Harvard Business Review, the authors wrote “Conflict often carries with it a heavy dose of emotion.” We know that resistance is also often driven by emotion. In order to effectively resolve the conflict or remove the resistance, you must understand what is at the route of it.

So, why do people resist change? Take a moment and think about how you have responded to change, especially change that is imposed on you. Did you feel a loss of control? Were you afraid that the change would have a negative outcome? Did you feel overwhelmed, like you already have too much going on and now you have one more thing to do? Was your reaction to say, “we don’t need to make this change?”

We’ve all felt that way at some point in time.

Louis V. Gerstner, former CEO of IBM, once said “Longevity is dependent on the capacity to change. [But] [r]ather than changing, many companies find it easier to just keep doing the same things that brought them success. They codify their approach into guidebooks and teaching manuals. They create whole cultures around sustaining their model.” And, as long as there are no threats to the model, this can go on for years. This leads to organizational inertia.

We recently worked with a collaborative of organizations that experienced just that. The independent organizations had come together over the previous twenty-year period to provide a set of services primarily to one customer. The collaborative performed very well for that customer and a culture was formed around this model. Then, an external force changed all of that. But, the extent of organizational inertia that existed among the organizations prevented any meaningful response for almost four years. As they began to take steps to respond to the external forces, significant conflict arose.

There are many different types of conflict: 

  • Interpersonal conflict: a conflict between individuals

  • Intrapersonal conflict: conflict within an individual; involves the individual’s thoughts, values, principles, or emotions.

  • Intragroup conflict: A conflict that occurs within a team.

  • Intergroup conflict: A conflict that arises among different teams within an organization or among separate organizations that are closely linked.

We observed all of these occurring during our work with the collaborative. At the root of the conflict was significant resistance by some to the idea that their model, and really their culture, had to change and an acceptance by others that this was true and a willingness to make that change.

We understood that the leadership of these organizations were all at different places along the change continuum.

Understanding that people go through phases of change is an important first step in effectively managing change.

Whether we are talking about Kurt Lewin’s three step change model (unfreezing, change, refreezing), Prochaska and DiClemente’s model of change (pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance) or, even, Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance), the early phase(s) of change is where resistance and conflict most often occur.

Because phases of change are not linear and people may move in and out of phases throughout the process until the change is complete, frequent and ongoing communication is necessary.

What we have learned in our work is that the language used to communicate change and the frequency with which it is used can mean the difference between a rough and smooth change. For example, rather than talking about change itself, communication should focus on opportunities, outcomes, and calls to action. Communications should speak directly to the implications for staff because it is human nature to think first of one’s self and what the change will mean for you.

To give employees back their sense of control, you must communicate with them how they can be a part of the change and how their involvement matters. There must be specific calls to action to put an employee back in charge of their role, responsibilities, and career.

Strategies for effective communication include:

  • Use metrics to show the numbers behind changing the status quo;

  • Talk about the benefits of the change to staff and their job satisfaction;

  • Use motivational quotes pertinent to the change to inspire staff;

  • Explain, to the extent possible, exactly what will happen during the change;

  • Be honest and transparent about potential negative implications or effects while clearly demonstrating leadership’s intent to make the transition as smooth as possible (i.e. if there is an expected reduction in force, commit to providing job placement assistance);

  • Choose your words wisely:

    • Use words like respect, commitment, accountability, gratitude, initiative, service, excellence, innovation, results;

    • Don’t focus on the difficulty or complexity of the change and avoid using words like hard and heavy lift;

    • Avoid using first person and speaking from your own perspective. Instead speak about the collective organization and group: the change is not mine, not yours, but ours.

  • Use change agents in the communication; the change agent embraces the new direction and facilitates staff buy-in by displaying a passion for new challenges and associating the upcoming change with that passion;

  • Different audiences with different concerns will need different messages. Messaging is not “one size fits all.” If there are areas where the impact will be greater, be sure to design specific messages that address the issues;

  • Use language that displays leadership’s commitment to the change, to the staff, and to the collective success of the organization.

Lack of transparent and meaningful communication among the parties also was a significant contributor to the conflict that existed among the organizations. This lack of transparency and communication engendered unnecessary fear, anger, and mistrust.

Even with effective and frequent communication, conflict and resistance are still likely to occur. This requires leadership to actively identify and acknowledge the conflict or resistance. Doing so is the first step in understanding the source of the resistance or conflict. And that leads us to the third contributor to the conflict and resistance among the collaborative. Lack of strong leadership with a clearly articulated plan for the future and follow through when action steps were identified.

In these case, our approach is to work with leadership to find a path forward, acknowledging that the change may need to be more incremental and occur over a longer period of time. We understand that incremental change is success and we celebrate it. Throughout the process we identify “wins” and continuously encourage and support clients. We are flexible and adaptable and move with the organization at their pace. We know that when there is success, it is transformative.

Conflict or resistance rarely occur without reasons and, in many cases, these are good reasons. This is an innate checks and balance in the change process and it should be viewed as such.

Once the reasons are understood, an action plan can be devised.

In the case of the collaborative we worked with, our approach was to stop trying to force a solution and timeline that would work for everyone. Instead, we recommended that each organization identify what change it was able to take on at this time and to work toward that.

Through honesty, transparency, and an action-oriented approach, change, conflict, and resistance can be effectively managed.


Business StrategySarah Dohl