The Role of Conflict Resolution in Implementing Process Change

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Corinne was at first very pleased to have been asked to implement a process change. She was the one who first identified a problem in operations and who suggested a few modifications to the procedure. After raising the matter several times over many months with senior executives, she finally received the go-ahead to make the necessary changes.

As Corrinne approached her colleagues with the idea of changing the process, she was at first greeted with support. Her work environment was generally professional and courteous. But the more Corrinne engaged her coworkers about the idea of changing a process, the more subtle the pushback she received. Confused, Corrinne pressed on with figuring out a way to bring the different departments together to have a conversation about changing the process.

After much back and forth and lukewarm responses, Corrinne finally got most of the managers from the other departments together. She presented the general outline of the process as it was and the reasons why it had to change. A few people shifted uncomfortably in their chairs but so far the meeting was going well. That was until it came time to get down to the nitty gritty details of what had to change.

When Corrinne broached the topic of changing the process she was met with an awkward silence from the other managers. Their responses were unexpected and caught Corrinne off guard. She hadn’t been expecting a conflict but there it was before her. Corrinne asked for each of their opinions. Luc was the first to speak and raised concerns over how changes in the process would impact his department. Charles then spoke and said that in his twenty-five years of experience the process they had now was the best one currently available. Changing it would mean reducing efficiency and lowering productivity. Lise was the last to speak and possibly the most hostile towards Corrinne’s initiative. Lise turned Corrinne’s idea down flat.

Taken aback by the responses of her colleagues, Corrinne ended the meeting. She wasn’t expecting to experience a conflict, let alone several but there they were before her.

When you work with people you are likely to encounter conflict. Conflicts are simply differences of opinions. They can be superficial or deeply held opinions. Conflict occurs over a variety of reasons including a difference in: i) values - such as differences in political parties, ii) rights - such as different rights under employment legislation for employees and the legal rights of employers, iii) interests -meaning what agenda you would like to advance and the motivations behind it, iv) process - meaning the procedure and methodology you want to follow and what that procedure represents to you, and v) power – as in different degrees of ability to accomplish a task, some people have more power than others in specific situations.

In working to change a process, Corrinne encountered five types of conflict. Let’s not forget that it took Corrinne several conversations with senior management to receive their approval to change a process. Corrinne was in conflict with senior management because senior management had more power than Corrinne, meaning they could and did at first, stop Corrine’s efforts at changing the process. Luc voiced concerns over the process and thus was in a difference of opinion with Corrinne in terms of a process conflict. Charles disagreed with Corrinne’s proposal because it didn’t reflect his interests and twenty-five years of experience. So Charles and Corrinne were experiencing an interest-based conflict. Lastly, Lise used her power and flatly refused Corrinne’s initiative thereby putting herself and Corrinne at odds with one another in a power conflict. Once Corrinne was able to sort out the conflicts with the other managers, she had to support the managers in implementing the process change in each of their departments. Each manager received different kinds of pushback from their staff and Corrinne had to step in to mediate mutually acceptable, and still in keeping with the process change, courses of action.

Corrinne learned that she had to apply conflict resolution skills at the following intersections:

1. When bringing up the original problem with senior management and negotiating their approval to proceed with process change
2. With each of the managers at the table to sufficiently address their concerns
3. Sometimes Corrinne had to mediate conflicts between managers at the table who disagreed not just with Corrinne’s proposal but with the suggested proposals of others
4. Once the negotiations with the managers were done, Corrinne had to support the managers who in turn negotiated with the employees of their departments who were concerned about changes and how they would impact them.

In short, conflict resolution needs to be applied throughout the entire chain of events from proposing an idea and negotiating buy-in from senior management, to negotiating with those affected the best possible course of action, to addressing the issues and conflicts that arise from the actual implementation.

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