What I have learnt about conflict in organisations

Sandy Thompson

After 20 years of organisation facilitation I have noticed clear patterns emerging when I am asked to work with groups in  in conflict - most groups think there is something wrong with them, assume the conflict is personality based, and wait until things are quite dire before seeking help.

The reality is conflict is normal. 

Western cultures have lost touch with traditional ways of working with conflict and therefore experience it as uncomfortable if not painful – no wonder we avoid it all costs especially as without a process attempts to resolve conflict can make it worse.
While conflict is rarely personality driven, it is personal for many groups. It is unusual to find someone who works in a community organisation who does not live and breathe the work (including their work), and hold their community close to their heart. Being a values driven leader means any challenge is personal. Working through this requires consideration that the individuals involved are acting through passion, concern and from a place of caring.

I have seen organisations who step up and work with conflict, thrive.

As a natural conflict avoider, I totally understand reluctance to do this, but there is a danger for organisations that they shift from a culture of conflict avoidance to a culture of conflict denial. Managers and leaders who step into conflict and use the tension and energy it creates to build rather than destroy their teams are usually pleasantly surprised the extent to which conflict resolution can build rather than destroy teams. Whilst it is corny to say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, I have many times witnessed teams becoming closer and more effective as a result of working through a well structured conflict resolution process.
Leaders who have the skills knowledge and confidence to prevent and work with conflict are able to lead empowered teams.