Back to the Mar-Apr 2019 issue

An Ounce of Prevention Equals A Pound of Transitional Conflict Cure

By Craig Waldron and Kris Norman-Major

Transition. It’s something city officials and staff experience virtually every time there is an election. And with that transition often comes conflict.

As the city clerk, manager, or administrator, you can work to prevent conflict before it begins. How? By creating a city hall culture where communication and listening are the norm, and relationships are built on trust.

An important first step is to maintain an air of confident calmness. The leadership team has the responsibility during stressful times to handle conflict and shield the rest of the staff from difficulties that can occur during election and transition periods.

Take action during election season

A significant amount of conflict can be avoided initially by contacting candidates before the election. Have a general conversation about the election process and make sure that you are open to any concerns or problems the candidate may be experiencing.

The time to establish critical relationships is before a transition, not after. If you have the opportunity to meet with candidates, the priority is to listen, listen, and listen some more to learn more about the candidates, what makes them tick, and what can be anticipated if they end up winning the election.

It is also useful to designate one person to help manage the difficult politics that surface during an election. This should be an individual who can aggressively manage all the controversies, yard sign problems, general questions, accusations, and other situations immediately as they crop up. Fast action and response during this period can negate future transition problems.

After the election

Once the election is over and the transition is truly commencing, again, you need to continue to facilitate an air of calm and confidence. At this point it is critical for the new councilmembers, current members, and the leadership team, to sit down and review past policy and future policy considerations, and subsequently, agree on the way forward.

It is the agreeing part that might be the most challenging. No matter how well the leadership team manages the challenges of elections and transitions, there is likely to be some conflict. But the conflict doesn’t have to be destabilizing or destructive. In fact, sometimes conflict handled in a healthy manner can lead to innovation, new insights, and better working relationships.

If conflict arises

There are lots of sources that provide help in dealing with conflict and having difficult conversations, but the key is to start from a culture based on trust built early in the relationship.

Other key steps include:

  • Find what’s at the heart of the conflict. Is it personality, position, process, or policy?
  • Manage your emotions and actively listen to other perspectives.
  • Look at the issue in context of the larger organization.
  • Plan your message when possible.
  • Find areas of agreement.
  • When necessary, apologize and repair relationships.

Working in a political environment can make this difficult at times, but having this kind of strong and healthy process for dealing with conflict can make all the difference. This is much easier when respectful relationships are established early on. Over time, while the manager sets the culture, it’s everybody’s responsibility to maintain a high level of trust and respect.

In summary, this is the formula to manage the stress of transition:

Relationships = Trust
 

Trust = Minimal Transitional Conflict
 

Change is often stressful and can lead to conflict, but well-managed transitions and healthy conflict resolution can help your city maintain its commitment to work efficiently and effectively for the common good.

Craig Waldron is adjunct faculty and Kris Norman-Major is professor and director of Public Administration Programs at Hamline University School of Business (www.hamline.edu/business). The Hamline School of Business is a member of the LMC Business Leadership Council (www.lmc.org/sponsors).

More Information

Want more ideas for dealing with conflict? Here are some resources you might find helpful:

  • HBR Guide to Dealing With Conflict, by Amy Gallo
  • Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler
  • Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, by Edgar Schein
  • League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust Collaboration Services: www.lmc.org/collaborationservices