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  • Dean Williamson

Conflict for people who don't like talking about feelings

A huge proportion of organisational disruption and debt comes from layer upon layer of interpersonal conflict. A system that doesn't have any way to handle conflict is a wreck. It pretends it isn't, but it is...

In moving towards the bevy of desired states around organisational development - whether it's self-management, Teal, New Ways of Working, people-positivity etc, conflict processes which change the cultural norms are a necessity.

A European tradition

Most of the thinking in this space at the moment comes from the distinct tradition of "conflict resolution". This approach is rooted in

Person v person!
Conflict resolution feels like this to most people who haven't grown up with it

natural justice, and sees one conflictee sit with the other conflictee to attempt to raise issues and seek some outcome - whether understanding, recognition or restoration. The theory is that conflict is healthy and normal, and that through conflict you can gain a greater understanding of yourself. Emotional awareness, emotional intelligence, understanding your own needs, and the ability to practice assertiveness are all key in making this recipe work.

I don't think that I disagree with any of the above at all. I have been actively practicing this approach in many of the organisations that we work with. In Lisa Gill's words, it has been moose head after moose head for me!

But I also wrote this blog post about Australian culture a while ago. Despite our big talk, Aussies are notoriously polite, and mostly avoidant of conflict. And Puck Allegra posted a great provocation on Linkedin about cultures that are more "careful". AND I've been reading mind-blowingly good books (like Sand Talk and Treading Lightly) about the knowledge that Australia had access to before it was colonised by Europeans.

And all of this came together and made me wonder - are we importing a European approach to conflict where it may not fit? Are there other ways to handle conflict?

Conflict as interpersonal vs structural

The European approach to conflict places the individual at the centre of the process, and personal development and learning can be gained through a willingness to "step into" the discomfort of conflict.

However, as an organisational designer, I would feel like I was a failure if any other area of an organisation seemed so manual and reliant on an individual's will to adopt a new behaviour. If our system is causing or contributing to conflict, surely the resolution should be systemically-assisted (as in, nudged), rather than blaming our people by framing the issue as strictly interpersonal? Surely we should be aiming for structural contribution to resolving conflict?

So here's two ideas coming at you from Australia, both of which sound a bit ridiculous in how they're titled, but both seem to have a very deep past:

The "put down" as an alternative to conflict resolution

One of Human Systems Co.'s client is Aquadec, a 25-year-old, growing and very successful commercial irrigation company. Their field teams are made up of awesome (mostly) young Aussie men. I love being with them - they're fun and hard working and surpisingly deep and clever. However, they're also Aussie guys, and they hate talking about their feelings and "sorting things out" (i.e. voicing and resolving conflict). As a result, they have taken conflict avoidance to a systemic level, with a technique that we affectionately call the "put down".

Can you "put down" conflict? Maybe that's the skill you need to work on?

The way the "put down" works is the opposite of conflict resolution. Instead of "stepping into" conflict, the team and its members also have the choice to "put down" the conflict, effectively choosing to puff their cheeks, and blow it out into the wind for it to drift away.

Think it sounds unhealthy? It probably is if you pretend to let go (i.e. the issue isn't genuinely "put down") - if we don't speak about it, but still hold unspoken frustration or resentment. However, the technique has actually been very healthy, with the team often choosing harmony and forgiveness over their individual needs and escalating conflict. It could be seen as "team" over "me" - the collective over the individual. In this way, it may be a systemic realisation of resisting Europe's individualism that is inherently baked into our thinking.

"We're all idiots sometimes" - The "kick in the ass"

The second process that Aquadec has developed is again rooted in Australian masculinity. Australians have an affinity for a bit of hierarchy, although we don't like it to be too "high". So, when a member "stuffs up" badly enough to earn the ire of the rest of the team, or when they contravene values too much, the team is called together. The bloke is stood up in front of them all to get a "kick in the ass" - a group calling out by those brave enough to speak for the group.

The first time Doug (the CEO) and I led one of these, we had to do most of the "calling out". All of the team got shifty eyes and mostly looked at the floor, shuffling uncomfortably. A few small vocalisations of "it's not alright that you just disappeared for 2 weeks" or "just make sure you tell us next time" were made, but mostly everyone wanted to get out of there, and quick!

I asked Jackson, one of the team, what happened. The answer was enlightening: "Well, we're all going to be idiots sometimes, so it will probably be me next week - I didn't want to go too hard." Yep, young guys will make mistakes, and their solution is a "kick in the ass" and forgiveness - the ability to re-integrate with no ill-will held against them once they've received their punishment (see combining the "put down" and the "kick in the ass" is powerful - Aussie style!).

The funny thing is, no one wanted to be too publicly critical of the transgressor, but a bunch of them went to check that he was ok afterwards. And what could be a better team outcome than the guy feels cared for, rather than outcast after having a "moment"?

We've talked about it since, and the teams have delegated the role of leading "kick in the ass" sessions to the CEO. Not because he's the CEO, but because he's older, and they trust him to speak for them when they can't - and because they have a different role - to bring the guy back into them afterwards.

The deep roots of these two techniques

We pride ourselves to being sensitive to our client's organisations. We had observed and formalised these two processes, and all the while I had a voice in my head saying - "aren't these techniques avoidant and maladaptive and unhealthy? Surely we should be facing down conflict?"

And then I read Tyson Yunkaporta's Sand Talk. And then I (re)watched Ten Canoes - an Aboriginal nested moral/knowledge story, and the first ever movie entirely filmed in Australian Aboriginal languages with a full Aboriginal cast. They both taught me how the world's oldest and most sustainable culture used lore/law enshrining techniques like these to carry conflict in collective ways.

"In our traditional systems of Law we remember, however, that everyone is an idiot from time to time. Punishment is harsh and swift, but afterwards there is no criminal record, no grudge against the transgressor."

For example, Tyson says:

"In our traditional systems of Law we remember, however, that everyone is an idiot from time to time. Punishment is harsh and swift, but afterwards there is no criminal record, no grudge against the transgressor. Perpetrators are only criminals until they are punished, and then they may be respected again and begin afresh to make a positive contribution to the group. In this way, people will not lie and shift blame or avoid punishment by twisting rules to escape accountability. They can look forward to a clean slate and therefore be willing and equal participants in their own punishment and transformation, which is a learning process more than anything else."

And in Ten Canoes you see this in practice. One of the protagonists, Ridjimiraril, kills a man from another community, wrongly believing that he stole his wife. Once the transgression is uncovered, law dictates that he and another member of his group must stand before the men of the wronged community, who will throw spears until one of them is hit (a pretty radical "kick in the ass"). Once this is done, the film shows a firm handshake between the groups, and the issue is done - law has resolved it, and now the communities can go on with no hard feelings. Law carries the conflict, so that the groups don't spiral into anything more serious or destructive.

What else is there?

These are just two examples of alternative approaches to conflict, inspired by a more collective and structural perspective. I'd love to know what others you've seen, so that we as designers can offer a toolkit that is more understanding of cultural differences and diverse needs. Because, despite what many leaders in this space would have us this - most of us have (fairly reasonable) difficulty with conflict.

A short note: I'm a bit wary about writing about Aboriginal knowledge. I wrote this piece while sitting in my home, which sits on Dharawal land. I am not indigenous to Australia - my ancestors came across the sea in the last couple of hundred years and were part of the systems which disrupted the very sustainable practices from which I am now trying to respectfully learn. I have chosen public sources of this knowledge so that I'm not intentionally appropriating or disclosing anything which shouldn't be shared, or doesn't already exist. I hope this is ok - if anyone with the right to speak about it from an Aboriginal group wants to have a chat, feel free to send me an email, and I promise I'll listen.

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