Every Change Manager has encountered a situation where conflict has prevented a project from moving forward or threatened its success. In some cases, they’re easy to resolve. In others, it feels like the only way to deal with it, is to give everyone Nerf guns, let them loose in the office parking lot and see who is left standing.
At these times, it’s useful to remember that, even in the most complicated international political conflicts, there are Rules of Engagement: Rules among military forces that define the circumstances, conditions, degree, and manner in which the use of provocative actions may be applied. Having a set of rules that helps us to successfully navigate conflict – every time – is a Change Manager’s dream.
Here’s the thing though; getting people to follow the Rules of Engagement is dependent on the environment in which the rules are being applied. The uncertainty of an unstable or hostile environment will prevent those involved from agreeing on or following rules. The right kind of environment is one where honesty isn’t just a feeling; it’s a concrete, definitive step along the path to conflict resolution.
There are things that prevent the creation of this kind of safe space. One problem is that many people police their own words – even when they’re angry. Another is that those who don’t police their words face consequences for being too honest. These are two problems that create the same result. When words are policed, it’s difficult to get to the heart of an issue. When words are spoken in anger, they come out wrong and prevent us from getting to the heart of the issue.
As conflict negotiators, Change Managers face a massive challenge: We need to create a space where all individuals involved feel safe to express why they’re in a place of conflict. This means encouraging individuals who are being cautious with their words to express what they’re feeling – without fear of confrontation. At the same time, we need to reassure individuals who are overly blunt that they will have the chance and space to explain words that may have wrongly expressed what they’re feeling. It’s a challenging environment for Change Managers to create ‘The Rules of Engagement’ will differ from one organisation to another and from one conflict to the next. If all else fails, water balloons are available in packets of 2000 from China Mall.