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  • Writer's pictureKaren Young

Conflict aversion dooms strategy: make conflict work for you

Updated: May 21

Welcome to SWOT Sunday!

You are no stranger to conflict.  Conflict is everywhere: with your family, friends, in your workplace or community, even with strangers on the street.  Even the prospect of having a fight or disagreement with someone can be unpleasant, scary, even terrifying. 


We must all be keenly aware that conflict that seems organic can be created or inflamed by external forces that mean you no good.  This can be everything from Russian bots (Russia claims they’re so good only 1% of their bots are detected) to the FBI.  Lest you think FBI infiltration is ancient history,  a Mother Jones/Reveal story shows how they infiltrated racial justice groups in Denver in 2020.  All the more reason to get on top of it – now.


It’s never easy – but it is possible – to handle conflict in such a way as to create clarity and unity for an organization, and to strengthen relationships.  Today we’ll discuss what some movement groups are doing to equip progressive organizations with the tools to do conflict right.


How Conflict Avoidance Hurts Organizations, Especially On Strategy


Yotam Marom, veteran activist, co-founder of The Wildfire Project, and a trainer with Wildfire who facilitates strategic conversations for social movement groups, talks about how conflict avoidance harms organizations.  He’s worked with organizations large and small that were unable to deal with it.  He quotes Richard Rumelt’s book, Good Strategy Bad Strategy:


“Good strategy requires leaders [my emphasis] who are willing and able to say no to a wide variety of actions and interests. Strategy is at least as much about what an organization does not do as it is about what it does.”  A healthy culture, including a healthy approach to conflict, starts at the top.  Leaders must nurture such a culture every day to keep it strong.



Conflict avoidance has not only been hurtful to the relationships on my team; it has negatively impacted our ability to form good strategy.


Avoiding conflict has meant saying yes to everything instead of prioritizing and focusing, so that we didn’t have to fight or argue.


It has meant compromising between multiple competing visions instead of choosing, so that we could maintain the group as it was, and not have to part ways.


It has meant continuing programs that weren’t yielding results, even keeping folks on the team who weren’t showing up, because facing those harsh truths would have been painful, would have caused a rupture. It has meant shying away from making hard decisions.


He’s worked with “dozens of groups across the movement that couldn’t really have those hard strategic conversations with any integrity because they were ignoring or repressing other tensions — about leadership, rank, and power, about race, class, and gender…


“We’re afraid of getting hurt, hurting one another, saying the wrong thing, getting called out, being disposed of. We think that if we fight, the group might collapse; if the group falls apart, then the thing from which we derive so much of our meaning, our vehicle for making change, our circle of belonging, will be lost, and then we’ll be alone.”


Right-Sized Belonging


An interesting online magazine called @_convergencemag (“a magazine for radical insight”) features a story called Right-Sized Belonging: Six Practices For Organizers by Sammie Ablaza Wills.  By “right-sized belonging,” they mean a balance between people’s need for belonging and a sense of agency, and a “resilient commitment to a collective purpose.”


They have created a toolkit and website on the topic, which try to answer the question, how can base-building organizations cultivate right-sized belonging in service of strategy and sustainability?


If you’re facing challenges in your organization, I believe you would find at least some of these ideas quite useful.  One that spoke to me is, Practice # 3: Set Boundaries & Expectations.


When you don’t do this, “people will make assumptions around which needs get met [in your organization], who holds what power, and who is responsible for others’ pain and belonging.”  They give an example about how if you come to a meeting and you have a broken leg, you can reasonably assume that “somebody's going to come downstairs, carry my bag, and help me up.”  But you CANNOT reasonably assume that “somebody is going to set your bones and put on a cast.”


The exercise in the toolkit involves asking assessment questions like, “Can people across the organization name what is expected of them in their role? Do they understand what they can expect from others, and from the organization as a whole?”


It also suggests actions to take which would make this issue less salient, like:


  • Design clear resources and trainings to illustrate how people in the organization are expected to relate to each other, work together, and make decisions.

  • When members join the organization, create opportunities to learn about the context of organizational boundaries and how decisions get made.

  • Practice holding people accountable to shared expectations in moments of conflict or when work is left incomplete. If a consistent challenge, shift expectations in line with group needs and organizational values.

If work isn't getting done, you could: reduce or scale back projects to better match your capacity; make your systems more efficient; cross-train your people so that you can call on a pinch-hitter if someone is absent; or seek more funding or resources to better support your mission.  Or all the above!

"Shifting expectations" so that people don't have to get their work done, or so that it's OK for people to make personal attacks, is not going to be good for you in the long run.


Conflict Avoidance to Conflict Literacy


The Conflict Transformation Fund is doing important work on this issue with communities of color, in particular.  They embrace the idea of “conflict literacy.”


“Conflict literacy begins with seeing conflict as an opportunity for growth and positive change. It also involves learning, practicing and integrating a range of concepts, skills and tools that enable us to understand and work more skillfully with conflict.”


They have a number of resources available on their website,  including Turning Toward Each Other: A Conflict Workbook.   One section I thought particularly useful here was one about giving and receiving feedback.  This is something we can all work on!  However, I think most of us would say we’ve rarely had a manager at work who handled this well.  These are simple and actionable items that can improve any discourse. 





It’s never easy – but it is possible – to handle conflict in such a way as to create clarity and unity for an organization, and to strengthen relationships, as the leaders referenced above have shown.


Fully moving an organization from conflict avoidance to generative conflict or literacy won’t be easy or quick.  Furthermore, doing that is necessary, but not sufficient, to build a high-functioning and successful organization.  We’ll talk about some other factors that come into play in upcoming posts. 


I’m encouraged by all the activity I’ve found to help solve this foundational problem for the progressive movement.  The brave and skilled folks at the Wildfire Project and others are doing a lot to help our movement be all it can be.  I hope they find more support so they can scale up, which is desperately needed. 

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