Leadership, Change and Conflict

Mar 25, 2022 | Blog

Greg Abell, Principal
Sound Options Group, LLC


Several years ago, I was asked if I offered resources related to Leadership Development.  My response at the time was, “No, I work in the context of conflict engagement.”  After a bit of discussion, my client, a school superintendent, replied, “Do you know how much of my time is spent dealing with conflict?”  This conversation and subsequent conversations lead me to “connect the dots” between three significant contexts: Leadership, Change, and Conflict.

A significant challenge of Leadership is experienced when mobilizing people to engage change.  Why is this such a challenge?  The emotion that change most often triggers in people is anxiety.  Change pushes us outside our comfort zone. We often work very hard to avoid this and stay within a world that is predictable and safe.  Change is experienced as a threat; a threat to safety, predictability and identity.

This brings us to Conflict, which has been defined as a perception of incompatible difference or threat to our resources, needs, and/or values.  Your need for me to change is incompatible with my need to not change. Your need for change threatens my need for predictability and stability.  Conflict surfaces as those impacted by the change exhibit resistance, at the personal, team and organizational levels, to being asked to let go of what is and step into what might be.

Early in my practice I spent several years consulting with the Navy to implement a tiered system of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) for addressing workplace conflict.   The Director of Human Resources, a key partner in the work, implemented a reorganization to shift roles within the department from specialists to generalists.  The objective of the change was to provide better customer service to multiple Navy bases in the region.  The challenge was how to support staff to step out of their current professional comfort zones and take on the new learning necessary to support this expanded role.

The restructuring announcement triggered a range of resistance from the staff.  One employee had the reputation of being the best EEOC Investigator on the West Coast.  Now he was just going to be a generalist.  He was losing his professional identity.  Two other employees were planning on retiring in the next two years.  Now they were expected to take on a complex new learning curve that they would most likely never use.  Finally, one employee lamented, “Why would I leave competence and step into incompetence?  I’m not sure that’s a safe thing to do around here.” What an insightful question the employee had about safety within their culture. And what an important challenge for a leader to notice and work with to successfully move his staff through change successfully.

In William and Susan Bridge’s Managing Transition, they differentiate between an external change event like announcing a reorganization, and the three phases of psychological transition that ensue for people: Letting Go, The Neutral Zone and New Beginnings. The role of the leader is to facilitate the transformative personal and organizational learning necessary to move through each phase.

In the situation described above leadership recognized that change of this magnitude would take time.  There was recognition that this change would impact staff in different ways.  Significant time and resource were allocated to training and professional development.  Some chose to stay and engage the change, other chose to leave.  It was recognized that change of this magnitude required learning new skills and redefining your relationship to your profession.

Leaders create Conflict by inviting people to engage the possibilities of Change.  Given this challenge, it is interesting that many leaders do not like conflict and work very hard to avoid it.  What is your relationship to change?  What is your ability to be with the conflict that accompanies change initiatives?  How will you build your capacity as a leader to mobilize others to effectively engage change and conflict and achieve shared objectives? How might Sandbox Leadership support you in this learning?