These are scary times, and it’s not just COVID19. Polarization is rooted now in ways not experienced in living memory. Groups live in separate worlds, with their own news, networks, rhetoric, and influencers. Violence, threats of violence, and disregard for democratic processes are commonplace. It is not exaggerating to say that the rule of law and democracy seem to be in danger.
What can we do about it? The causes are many; there will be no single solution. High on the list of essential responses, I believe, must be strategies to improve skills in resolving conflicts and building consensus. But how?
Author and former CIA analyst Martin Gurri points out that public institutions today are an inheritance of the 20th century, “the heyday of the top-down, I-talk-you-listen model of organizing humanity. They are too ponderous and too distant from ordinary people. Legitimacy depended on control over information: failure and scandal could be dealt with discreetly. Once the digital tsunami swept away the possibility of control, the system lapsed into crisis.” (see his dialogue with Yuval Levin here)
Like it or not, there’s no going back to the old ways of leading and managing. We must expand the skill set of leaders at all levels.
But there’s a big obstacle.
With our out-dated expectations and skills for dealing with differences, we easily blame “them” for our perilous situation. In the sketch below, I represent “us” and “them” as two sides, brown and blue, each with its own leaders, grassroots, and middle leader influencers. Both sides are focused on a massive divide separating them.
The divide is real. But it’s more a symptom than a cause. To get out of this mess we must focus on causes.
The problem is not the issues piled up on the table between us. Nor is it simply the bad behavior of the other side. Instead we should focus on addressing this: The habits (assumptions, practices, expectations, skills) that guide how institutions and leaders go about making decisions and solving problems are from fifty years ago.
Here’s a reality that stands in the background: All groups, in all times and places face on-going decisions and conflicts internally. There’s competition for power within every group. Also hurts, slights, disappointments, and resentments.
We had a system that worked, sort of, in the past. The top-down approaches (leaders-talk-others-listen) that pervaded our institutions in the last century enabled leaders and institutions to resolve or contain problems as they arose.
Top-down approaches don’t work anymore but we use them anyway because it’s the only response we really know.
So what to do about it?
There is a widespread belief that where conflict symptoms appear is the place to address a problem. Nope. Dysfunctional conflict emerges where there are gaps of skill and analysis among those in key leadership roles. This results in bad patterns taking root all around. Leaders get mired in chronically unresolved conflicts: a) among themselves; b) between themselves and those they lead, c) among those who depend on them for leadership and mentoring, and d) with organizations in the environment.
You can’t fix that mess by mediating. The bad patterns soon overwhelm any progress you might make on specific issues.
We can’t fix the big divide on the table between brown and blue, for example, by setting up dialogue at the table. New understandings and skills for leadership, problem-solving, and conflict resolution have to be implemented internally first, on both side of the big divide.
Institutions and groups today are made up of individuals who expect a lot of say in decisions affecting their lives. Leaders require a new understanding of their role and a new set of skills to pull this off. They have to learn, and practice these skills and strategies internally, among the people they trust most, before they can deploy them in riskier settings.
Unity within a faction or party helps stabilize the entire system. Years ago a leading South African businessman told me: “I was very threatened by unionization when it first started. But eventually I saw that unions were easier to deal with. We used to have big problems with wildcat strikes and constant chaos. Unions brought order to the workers side. We know who to talk to, and we know that when we make a deal with the union reps, they’ll make it work.”
A big danger for this moment is the temptation to seize on simplistic answers. Eg: if top-down leadership doesn’t work any more, then bottom-up consensus must be the answer.
Nope again. You can’t do bottom-up consensus on everything. Participatory processes take time and energy, and resources. Not all issues merit the costs; not all require the lavish resources involved. If we seize on participatory approaches to leading and solving problems as the solution to all problems, we’ll wear out and fail. The result will be reduced willingness to use participatory approaches at all.
We need flexibility in our responses. Some decisions merit all-hands-on-deck participation. But others should be dealt with by executive action. Some conflicts require us to be engaged and assertive; others should be delayed or avoided. Some merit a smile and quick assent to demands; others require haggling and compromise.
Our goal must not be to completely eliminate top-down leadership and the skillset that comes naturally with it. Rather it must be to expand skill sets, so leaders don’t over-rely on top-down. One of the reasons I continue to invest a lot of energy in the Style Matters conflict style framework is that it teaches flexibility of response and gives leaders a tool to quickly recognize and evaluate a range of responses to conflict. (View short “Intro to Conflict Styles” slide show here.)
In conflict facilitation involving numbers of people we give a lot of attention to good process design. As early as possible, we consult with key people, sometimes gathering them in the same room, to get their input on questions like: What are the key issues here? Who do they affect? What are the needs and goals for the people affected? How to appropriately involve those people? Who will make the final decisions regarding whatever decisions we undertake and what decision-making procedures will they use?
After getting input on those questions we work carefully, jointly with key actors, to design a process of discussion that is understood and accepted by those involved. It’s called “agreeing on procedure”. If you do this before jumping into deep discussion and decision-making of the issues, a sustainable outcome is more likely.
That’s easier said than done! But it’s remarkably helpful in getting things off to a good start and avoiding mistakes that are hard to undo later.
An instinct we need to hone now in institutions and leadership is to pay attention to good process design. As we find our way with the new skill sets required today, we can’t just assume that the old approaches will work and be accepted by others. We need to talk with those we disagree with – and those we are leading in decision-making activities – about how to go about resolving the differences that confront us.
We can’t get through this time with the same old approaches. And new ones won’t just throw themselves at us. Every institution, whether political, community, business, or religious should be investing thought and time in re-tooling.
For many years I’ve used the diagram below to sketch out areas of competency. Each of those layers can be taught and learned with resources available online, or with the help of schools, coaches, consultants, trainers, or mentors. There’s no lack of learning tools and strategies!
For expanded commentary on this pyramid, see my blogpost on it.
Don’t be daunted by the scope of potential skills. Nobody masters them all! We need an expanded pool of leaders competent in the bottom five or six layers. Part of our current problem is that we have a large number of people functioning in the upper layers who have almost no skills or awareness in the lower layers.
It’s not necessary to start at the bottom and proceed in a nice smooth flow up through those layers. Start with what’s within reach. Conflict styles training, for example, jumps in on levels two and three, which are about interpersonal conflicts. But work here gives lots of opportunities to raise issues about level one, and to prime people for becoming more effective mediators or facilitators, the levels above.
Or maybe you start with a workshop on group facilitation, level five. That’s a great lead-in for additional work on listening and other interpersonal conflict resolution skills. The point is, you don’t have to have a nice orderly progression. Wherever you teach, lead, consult, or administer, build awareness in the people you work with that there is a useful set of skills they can learn and use for decision-making and conflicts of all kinds. Help them get on a lifelong journey of learning.
Starting with work within the parties in conflict seems longer and slower than just going for the issues between them. But sometimes you have to go slow to go fast, and I think that’s the case now.