Think Systemically: photo of iceberg. photo credit: annie-spratt

#95 Think Systemically To Lead Effectively Through Conflict

Think systemically. This is the second dimension of leadership in conflict. (In blog post #93 I outlined eight dimensions of leadership that empower a leader to be more effective in conflict.)

Conflict is a wonderful barometer of organizational life. A disruptive dispute between two individuals may be attributable to their personalities or lack of skill, but it may also be an indication of an underlying issue such as unclear goals, responsibilities that aren’t aligned, lack of policy, or missing leadership. 

Most frequently, conflict between colleagues flares up partly due to individual factors and partly from an organizational dynamic. If a leader only sees the conflict between individuals, they are ignoring the signal that something bigger may be amiss. 

The iceberg analogy is useful in learning to think systemically about organizations and other human groupings: What is obvious and visible is only a small part of the whole compared to what lies beneath the surface and is more substantial. When a dispute arises, it is frequently a visible manifestation of an underlying conflict or dysfunction that is either the cause of the dispute or creates fertile conditions for individuals to generate a dispute. 

Think Systemically: photo of iceberg. photo credit: annie-spratt

One needs to address the flare up but it is also wise to consider root causes that may have farther reaching implications. The following three questions support leaders in developing valuable insight into organizational or team functioning when conflict has flared up.

What are cultural and policy expectations regarding conflict? Whatever the expectation around conflict engagement is, it is likely to be reflected in the behaviour of individuals. You can, for example, have a general policy that people have to cooperate with each other over their responsibilities. Then how well an individual collaborates with others becomes a criterion of performance evaluation. If needed, the organization can supply training in collaborative practices, but the basic expectation of cooperation is part of policy and culture.

Are the people involved on the same page with regard to operations? For example, you can speak to them about how they understand their responsibilities and where the understandings have come from. You can ask them what they think current strategic priorities are. If parties’ understanding of their priorities or responsibilities clashes, it should not be surprising that they have conflict. Leaders should take an interest in how such understandings developed. 

Are there any relationship guidelines? Working relationships are usually improved through conversation about how to be together and how trust can be grown in the context of getting things done. And, what about power? Is there allowance in group dynamics to speak about how specific behaviours positively or negatively affect others? Without the cultural acceptance for talking about relational dynamics, it is difficult to improve them. 

Conflict can be a great teacher if you think systemically. To gain the learning, use the iceberg analogy as a guiding metaphor. Be curious, ask questions, and be open to new understandings.

2 thoughts on “#95 Think Systemically To Lead Effectively Through Conflict”

  1. Therese Boullard

    I’ve mediated and investigated workplace conflict for 20 years and this article is spot on. Workplace conflict presents an opportunity to shed light on underlying organizational / systemic factors. I’ve found the #13factors for workplace mental health identified by the Mental Health Commission a perfect summary of all of those systemic factors. When done well, they support positive relationships at work. When done poorly, they can trigger or enable bad behaviours by injecting avoidable stressors. For more info click here.

    1. Hi Therese,
      Thank you for your kind remark. It’s always great to have reassurance from a colleague that one is on the right track. I will add that the 13 factors identified by the Mental Health Commission have clinical quality to them – for me anyway. To balance it, one can additionally look at the system from an organizational functioning perspective which points to dimensions such as purpose formation, team development, and power dynamics. Thanks again, and take care! Gordon

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