‘When the dust settles’

Nicola Baines and Adam Smith provide a useful tool for dialogue in conflict management 

We have seen many organisations change significantly in structure in to response to a difficult and challenging economic climate. Management layers have diminished, increasing the responsibility and scope of management roles. Consequently, a conflict often emerges between the revised structure of an organisation, its pre-existing culture, and the capability and confidence of middle managers to operate effectively within the divergence of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ world; with the culture and skills gap often lagging behind the structural set-up.

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Middle managers find themselves:

  • Exposed to senior management where they have limited experience of working
  • Working at a more strategic level
  • Managing dispersed/virtual teams
  • Having increased responsibility with reduced capacity
  • Without clarity around role and remit
  • Lacking confidence to drive decision-making and assert their view.

Furthermore, less focus on the cultural change needed to support process and structural change, leaves middle managers operating in a conflict between the traditional hierarchy and entrenched ways of working, and a new job title with greater role demands.

So if this is the ‘as is’ state for an organisation, with the needs of the organisation, team and individual (the middle manager) being at odds with each other, what opportunities does this bring?

This completely depends upon what the organisation wants to do. There is often the presupposition that all conflict is negative which simply isn’t the case. Neither is it the case that order always needs to be created out of chaos if the end goal is met. However, if the end goal is not clear and the vision not communicated, as is often one of the challenges faced by middle managers, then conflict is a symptom of something that needs addressing.  

Few organisations readily embrace the learning opportunities inherent in conflict. Yet an organisations (and individual’s) richest learning is via experience. Therefore embracing the conflict and ‘riding the storm’ can create important experiential learning for all. However, an organisation must have the appetite, curiosity and awareness to acknowledge that a conflict exists, establishing channels to engage with the organisation – its leaders, managers and staff – to find out what is working and not working during times of change. It then needs to not shy away from what is revealed because of a perception of failure or through being ‘too busy.’ Fundamentally, this is about the organisation changing its relationship with conflict.

Reframing conflict using REASON

We have found our simple REASON model a really useful reflective tool to create dialogue and help organisations re-frame conflict, focusing on the opportunities it may bring:


Conflict can only be reframed if there is recognition it exists

Example: Recognising middle managers are exposed to working at senior levels without

the capability and confidence needed, yet the work/needs of the business demands them

to do so.


The organisation needs to remain curious to the cause(s) of conflict, to define what needs

ddressing. There needs to be a genuine desire to ‘clear the air’, as well as an appetite for

building upon what’s working, and changing what’s not.

Example: What do we know about the capability and potential of the middle management

pool? What helps/hinders? New ideas?


Survey the debris. What does the data show is actually going on here?

Example: What is the skills gap? Issues arising? Key trends?

So What                     

What does this mean for the organisation?

Example: What are the consequences for managers? For the growth of the organisation?

Is the organisational design at conflict with the employees and ways of working? What needs to happen?


What changes can be made, slight or significant, to improve operations, transparency,


Example: What and where are the strategic opportunities to build management

confidence, capability and influence?

New Perspective        

What does success look like?

Example: What will managers be doing differently? What are the expectations of the

organisation? How does that fit with business objectives?

Within virtually every conflict is the potential for a tremendous learning opportunity. Where there is disparity there is potential for growth and development, creativity and collaboration, innovation and learning – but only with a willingness to listen and acknowledge different needs, ideas and challenges, and confront existing ways of working to challenge the ‘traditional’ hierarchy of power and influence.




Debbie Carter

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