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459956463Discord is all around us, from our personal relationships to our work environments. And conflict in organizations is nothing new. Why is conflict so pervasive in most organizations, to the extent that some organizations are dysfunctional by any definition? And yet employees tolerate the conditions. This has to do the concept of dissonance. Dissonance has less to do with conflict and more to do with understanding how and when conflict incites change, and what needs to take place for change to happen seamlessly.

The authoritative work on this concept is Systems Leadership by Ian McDonald et al, where the authors’ identify nine principles of behaviour. They contend that people need to be able to predict their environments. It is not so much the quality of the results that are the driver of a need for change; it is the predictability of the results. When the results of actions cannot be reliably predicted, the result is dissonance.

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Unhappiness or Discord Does Not Drive Change

The fifth principle in Systems Leadership stands out to me in terms of presenting a framework for understanding change as a result of dissonance in the workplace. It’s not uncommon for there to be situations on the job where poor relationships are at play. For example, in some organizations there are very difficult management – union relationships. Continual friction and discord often define these types of relationships, yet the organization still functions, despite an unwillingness to change on either side. Why? Because the outcome is predictable – the union knows they will make demands and managers’ know they will resist.

Many people enter into the same kinds of situations in their personal lives, which ultimately are not fulfilling. Yet for some reason, it’s often easier and more predictable to continue along unsatisfied than enter into an unpredictable situation. The point is, it’s not unhappiness or discord that drives change, but the concept of dissonance, where the future is no longer predictable.

Dissonance Creates the Desire to Change

For example, most modern businesses use some amount of technology to do work. It may not be the most efficient or state-of-the-art, but in the current state everyone is familiar with how to use the system and how it will respond. The tendency is for people to want to continue to use it. Time and again the implementation of new technology fails, or is very difficult, because people would rather stay with the predictable inefficient system that the unknown and unpredictable state-of-the-art system.  Dissonance only comes into play when the system breaks down unpredictably and doesn’t work. In this state, people are no longer willing to put up with it because there is now unpredictability with results causing discomfort, prompting the desire to change.

Managers Play a Key Role

From a manager’s perspective, implementing change is more successful if employees are on board. Yet before that can happen, managers need to first understand if their team is satisfied with the status quo. If they are unhappy, but the system in place is predictable, they’re likely to resist change. On the other hand, if there is some unpredictability in their situation and they are also unhappy, they will likely be open to change. As managers, knowing how to position employees for change comes from understanding dissonance.

Understanding that dissatisfaction or unhappiness alone does not incite change is only the first step, because in situations where there isn’t unpredictability, it’s important for managers to invest significant energy in helping employees to embrace needed change. For instance, painting a picture of the future will help people understand how the investment of time and energy will result in better outcomes for all.