Conflict: A Predictable Companion of Social Change

by Jim Rickabaugh, Senior Advisor

In our excitement and enthusiasm for creating better learning experiences and a more effective educational system for young people we can ignore a predictable, but uncomfortable truth: Rarely does significant change in social processes, norms, and systems happen without conflict. Even when the benefits are clearly significant and documentable, resistance is nearly inevitable. 

Criticism and resistance accompanied the introduction of the Social Security system in this country, arguably one of the great social improvements for older and vulnerable portions of our population.  The enactment of Title IX gave gender equity in sports and other activities, dramatically expanding opportunities for women unimagined before its adoption. Yet, it was the object of criticism and objection for years. Some have yet to accept and appreciate its importance. Even the construction of highway roundabouts—a relatively simple change to our transportation system that has been shown to reduce traffic fatalities by 90% over traditional intersections—often face resistance and remain unpopular with many drivers. 

The fact is that resistance and conflict are predictable companions of social change. The key question is not how to avoid them. Rather, the challenges are to anticipate, respond, and manage conflict and resistance effectively when it surfaces.

 Unfortunately, little time and attention is given to anticipating and dealing with change-related resistance and conflict in most education administration and leadership preparation programs. Consequently, principals, superintendents, and other educational leaders often find themselves unprepared for what lies ahead when they engage in change processes. In fact, the absence of attention to and preparation for change-related conflict and resistance leads them and others to assume that resistance is bad and conflict should be avoided. Rather than understanding and engaging thoughtfully and strategically in the process, the conflict escalates to unmanageable levels, or worthy change is abandoned to avoid the discomfort and criticism that accompanies it. 

Sadly, the results too often are that important initiatives that hold the promise to improve learning and better prepare learners for their future are avoided, abandoned, or otherwise lost. Yet, it does not have to be this way. By anticipating, preparing for, and engaging thoughtfully with resistance, we can significantly increase the probability that conflict will not spell the end to important changes in learning that our learners deserve and need. 

A full discussion of the processes and strategies for dealing with social change-related conflict extends beyond what can be included in this format. However, we can review the general stages of preparation for and engagement in such conflict. 

Anticipation and preparation must begin well before implementation of new processes and changes. During the
pre-introduction stage of the change it is crucial to gain clarity about the reasons why this change is important and why now. Natural allies and potential advocates need to be a part of the conversation and have opportunities to ask their questions and gain an understanding of what is planned. People who are willing to be champions for the change should be identified and prepared to speak in favor of the initiative. This group can add important early credibility, especially if they are seen as independent of the system and not having a direct vested interest in proposing the change. To gain insight on serving student needs and interests, focus groups and surveys of learners can be an important part of building the case for change in this phase.    

Early communication about and
rollout of the initiative will quickly catch the attention of skeptics and potential resisters. The openness and respect leaders demonstrate in response to questions and concerns at this stage likely will have an influence on the strength and scope of future resistance and conflict. When people do not feel heard and respected, they are more likely to invest time and energy to push back. Equally important, the questions and concerns shared at this stage can be used to make adjustments in processes to address worries without changing the focus and purpose of the initiative. This information can also inform future communication efforts about the change. 

The next phase,
mid-implementation, typically energizes both supporters and resisters. Those who see the importance and value of the change need to be encouraged and supported to advocate in favor of the change. To the extent that learners are finding early benefits, their observations can be harvested and shared. Meanwhile, those who are reluctant or resisting need to be kept in the conversation. Listening and responding remain important, but it is important not to become preoccupied with satisfying all of their concerns and answering all of their questions. Doing so can become so time consuming that little time is left to provide the leadership and direction necessary for success of the initiative. 

Tipping Point
As the initiative continues to expand and move forward resistance and conflict likely will reach a critical
tipping point. The strongest resisters may be pushing for significant pull back or abandonment of the change. At this point it can be useful to concede some minor points about process or timing that respond to concerns and offer a level of concession without abandoning the core initiative. Even though it might be tempting, avoid giving up on key elements and aspects of the initiative that would make it a change in name only. Doing so can leave supporters and learners feeling abandoned and the benefits of the work unrealized. 

Conflict Conclusion
As the conflict and resistance begin to subside and the cycle of
conflict approaches conclusion, it remains important to continue to listen and remain respectful. Having “won” is not the goal. Making important, worthy change for learners and learning is what is important. Even if the outcome is less than hoped for, showing respect can keep communication open and create trust that can be important in the future. Unfortunately, failing to pay attention to relationships and build trust and credibility can sow the seeds of the next conflict and fuel even more resistance in the future. 

It is true that our best efforts to make change and improve learning experiences and outcomes likely will encounter some resistance. However, this prospect is not a reason to ignore, avoid, or delay the work we need to do to prepare today’s learners for their future. Rather, we need to be thoughtful, planful, and strategic as we lead, learn, and make the system better.