Resolving Conflicts Early Makes Change Easier

The old mantra of “change is hard” is frankly a story that gets told far too often. What makes it feel hard is the lack of preparation, process, and communication around planned changes. And, then of course, for the unplanned changes, there is often a feeling of always being behind the 8-ball, scrambling to stay ahead of the next piece of bad news.

Let’s update the story to: Change is challenging – and don’t we love to step up to a good challenge?

One of the reasons that change can feel challenging is that change highlights existing conflict: the intrapersonal issues that exist between perceived rivals, the staff that feels threatened by someone else’s achievements, the underperformers who fear new management, the rising star who might feel buried by reorganization.

Addressing conflict before a change event is ideal – of course, ideally, we’d manage conflict immediately all the time. But, it just doesn’t happen in reality.

I learned a major lesson regarding conflict from a dark time in an organization where I served on the Board of Directors.

Case Study: Not The Time for Silliness

I was on the Board of a small regional organization that looked to a national headquarters for overall direction and budget.

An ongoing passive/aggressive fight simmered between an elder director of the Board (we’ll call her Nancy) and a young staff member (we’ll call her Sarah). At first, it was the stereotypical conflict of “It’s always been done this way” versus the “Let’s try something new.”

As is often the case, it was easier to ignore it than to address it head on: too much drama and hassle and awkward conversations. But, of course, that’s all relative. In aggregate, the drama took up far too much of everyone’s time, and led to break room eye rolling and gossiping – morale and team killers.

In August of 2014, the news came down that the national office wanted to close the doors of our facility – forever.

This was a surprise to us, and it brought all of the operational and long-term, strategic work to a screeching halt as we went into emergency-response mode.

Change is challenging! We stepped up.

Through the hard work and fast-talking of a lot of people, we managed to delay closure, but it was a day-by-day concern. We never knew from where the next attack would come.

In the midst of this struggle for survival, the silly undercurrent between Nancy and Sarah developed into near distain for each other and was incredibly distracting to the overall mission. I say “silly,” because, when challenged with closure, this conflict wassilly. I don’t mean to trivialize the very real emotional situation for both of these ladies, but things got out of hand for no good reason.

When the typical end-of-year bonus and salary conversation took place for staff, most of the Board supported a generous package to both show our appreciation for Sarah’s response to the threat and a recognition of the additional work yet to come that was far beyond Sarah’s original role. Two Directors dissented, led by the inappropriate and derogatory comments of one in particular. Can you guess who it was? Yep. Nancy.

But it left me wondering – after I had calmed down – did Nancy even know she was being awful? I was betting she didn’t. I call this the Mad Hatter Rule – when someone is unaware of the true impact of her behavior. It happens a lot.

(I’ll talk more about how the Mad Hatter Rule became my life’s mantra in a later post.)

I was elected to Board President about a month after the contentious compensation meeting. The FIRST THING I did, literally within days, was to sit down with both of these women, individually.

For Nancy, I assumed the Mad Hatter rule to be true. I spoke to her about how much she was valued, and how much we all, including Sarah, appreciated her hard work and dedication to the organization. Which was absolutely true. This woman put her heart and soul into her work. This really sat her back on her heels. She found herself on the receiving end of a compliment, which led to her agree that Sarah was a valuable asset to the team, after all.

For Sarah, I loved her energy and ideas, and even with her inexperience, she was clever and hardworking and ready to fight this threat. I wanted to take the conflict with Nancy off her plate, so that she could concentrate on what she had to do to help save the organization. She, in turn, felt like someone had her back and valued her perspective.

It literally took two lunch dates to sort out the whole thing. And if you take out eating and casual conversation, it was probably two, 15-minute sessions.

The Lesson:

While conflict is something that is always present, to one degree or other, it is exacerbated by change: bickering can turn into an all-out war, mild dislike can turn to aggressive action.

I often equate chronic stress to rubbing two wires together. If you rub them together for too long, the insulation wears out, and every touch creates a spark. With conflict thrown into the mix, it’s like throwing that spark into gasoline fumes.

Imagine how much anxiety and frustration could have been avoided if only the conflict had been dealt with much earlier. Imagine how much more energy we could have spent addressing the issue at hand, instead of resisting the urge to crawl across the Board Room table and shake sense into them.

It’s always best to take care of conflict sooner rather than later. Problems are simpler, there are fewer emotional wounds, it is easier to save face.

Leaders will address conflict differently, but whatever your style, don’t wait until you’re also trying to manage a big change to address the conflict in your teams.


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