From Conflict to Co-operation
We may dread it, avoid it or even enjoy it, but whatever we feel about conflict, it can happen when people come together to work on a project. Sarah Alldred, project manager in the Good Governance strand within the Making Local Food Work programme for Co-operatives UK, has some tips on taking everyone with you:
If you want to succeed, you need shared commitment, common interest and mutual trust. Without these in place, conflict thrives, standing in the way of good teamwork that’s vital for achieving community goals.
Particularly damaging to social enterprises are group conflict, community conflict and wider stakeholder conflict:
Issues often arise when some members see an opportunity for change where others see a chance to preserve what’s always been there.
Some particularly difficult occasions have arisen when a pub is due to close. A typical scenario might be that an action group is set up and everyone unites in the common cause to save the pub. But once the group has secured the asset, members realise they have different ideas about what ‘saving the pub’ really means.
Change, which was initially seen as positive because everyone bought into it, turns negative because not everyone’s united behind ‘what happens next’. Here your goal is to return to a shared commitment to a common interest. It’s essential to state the obvious openly. If you’re saving a pub, say: “We took over the pub because we don’t want to lose it. We all have different reasons for supporting this, so how can we make our pub work for us all?”
An ideal way to have this conversation is in regular briefing meetings where everyone is present and is able to ask questions. Set clear ground rules, such as giving everyone time to speak, and be ready to listen to the uncomfortable. Stating the benefits of co-operation is also helpful.
If factions have formed, you need to minimize distrust and fear with clear, transparent and constructive communication. Hold meetings where both groups are encouraged to attend and know that they will be heard.
Encourage people to talk by promoting the message that difference is a positive thing and can be far more creative than being part of a group where everyone blindly agrees. Gently listen to people – even those who don’t shout the loudest – and acknowledge their experiences, with a clear aim to bring people back to the original shared understanding of why change happened in the first place.
Promote the unifying message that everyone is there for the same reason; they wanted change to happen, they just weren’t sure on the ‘what next’ - humility is a wonderful thing. After the project has gone in one direction, there may be hurt feelings and damaged pride – so check in with people who may feel they made concessions.
Restate why their involvement is so important. Highlight the benefits of why a decision has gone in the direction it has and how it can ultimately benefit them, while also validating their feelings. Staying empathetic and positive is what’s called for now.
Even if you and members of your community enterprise are united in your aims, you’re far from out of the woods. Opposition can come from one or a number of people in the village or community.
For instance, established businesses may fear a new retailer will bring extra traffic that will prevent their regular customers from parking. Or they may worry that their trade will be severely dented by a new community shop. You need the goodwill of these potential rivals for the wellbeing of your enterprise.
A good rule of thumb is to get everyone in your enterprise group united on the same page before entering into communication with the wider community. Together, agree on the win-win solutions that are only possible if your business joins the community. Perhaps you want to emphasise that your enterprise will bring additional customers who would otherwise have gone elsewhere.
Hold an open meeting to allow existing businesses to have their say and to give you a chance to explain the benefits you will bring. If there are any flashpoint issues such as parking, discuss these and look together for different solutions. Transparent open dialogue is key and it’s important not to hunker down and ignore difficult conversations.
Meanwhile as a group, stay true to why you have formed in the first place and really push those community benefits. Community relationship building is crucial as it dispels any myths and fears, and gives people the opportunity to ask questions.
Wider stakeholder conflict
There are some people you can’t afford to fall out with because they have the legal power to scupper your enterprise or event – perhaps the planning authority or the licensing committee of the local council. You may have had little contact with them before and so don’t know them personally.
Sometimes it’s down to luck whether individuals are positive about your enterprise or need a lot of convincing, but there are many steps you can take to help things go your way. As a general rule, do not be complacent. Make sure you have done your homework and you are confident that the benefits of your business can stand up to scrutiny.
Finding the human faces behind the faceless institutions can soften building relationships with key stakeholders so find sympathetic individuals within big organisations and forge relationships with them. It may take time but it will be worthwhile because they can help you.
If a decision has gone against you, stay engaged. It is very rare not to have some obstacles when starting out and there are often valid reasons for any decision. Talk with the decision-makers so you understand their rulings and ask what you can do to make things turn out differently next time. Generally, people want to see you succeed and will work with you to make that happen as long as it is within the constraints they outline.
Stay positive. You know the benefits of your business and you are passionate about it, so keep engaged.
Find out more
Sarah recommends reading Co-operatives UK’s five illustrated guides in the From Conflict to Co-operation series:
- Conflict - where it comes from and how to deal with it
- Communication skills
- Meetings and decision making
- Organisational growth and development
- Roles and responsibilities of the committee.
You can download them FREE from Co-operatives UK’s website or call 0161 246 2900 for a hard copy, charged at £5 from March 2012.
This article was published in Issue 3 of The Local, the Village SOS magazine. Click here to see more inspiring case studies, tips and advice on setting up a community enterprise.