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Navigating Conflict in These Uncertain Times

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard M. Jacobs
April 2, 2021

With leadership theorists offering encyclopedic volumes of advice, successful leadership may appear to be more of a hope—like finding the right book in the Library of Congress—than a goal one can actualize.

Elusive as successful leadership practice may be, it needn’t be a vain hope…even in today’s uncertain times.

Cultivating a Special Mindset

Leadership theorist Michelle Buck argues that times of uncertainty require cultivating a, “Special mindset.” To this end, Buck notes, leaders implement four timeless and timely principles:

  • Leverage the power of reflection. Success in confronting adversity requires reflecting upon the experiences that shaped one’s values and beliefs as well as what one’s s future contributions will be. In times of uncertainty, these reflections provide stability.
  • Generate transformation from adversity. Success in confronting adversity—emerging from it as a courageous and heroic figure—requires stepping into the abyss and engaging directly in the struggle. This experience develops insight into the pathway leading to personal transformation as well as generating the wisdom needed to arrive there safely in times of uncertainty.
  • Create a sense of safety. Success also requires increasing creativity in times of uncertainty. The means to this end are found in others who feel comfortable voicing constructive criticism. Encouraging these conversations will create a “speak up” culture that others will notice and this will have a positive impact upon their attitudes. When confronting times of uncertainty, this culture will generate hope not fear, collaboration not isolation and a sense of community, not loneliness.
  • Embrace “both/and” thinking. Successfully navigating adversity requires expanding one’s mindset. Moving beyond any zero-sum mindset and thinking more broadly fosters the formulation of more creative solutions, Buck notes, by, “Resist[ing] the temptation to think that there’s only one solution to any challenge we face.” The temptation to frame adversity and its challenges in terms of “either/or” solutions does not encourage creative thinking.

These four principles may prove relevant, especially when public administrators navigate times of uncertainty. With title, position and role in an organization’s hierarchy providing no guarantee of success, these principles will challenge public administrators to develop a more expansive and creative mindset. In turn, this mindset will inform their considerations about how best to conduct themselves, especially when success involves transforming what may appear to be a vain hope into an actualized goal.

Navigating Conflict in Uncertain Times

Public administrators should be aware that implementing these four principles is guaranteed to generate conflict. This is something they may be loathe to unleash because it can foment animosity.

Counterintuitively, the failure to unleash conflict virtually guarantees that individuals and groups will remain convinced they’re correct, perhaps further entrenching themselves in their cherished ideas. In turn, entrenchment only strengthens the walls segregating people, thus fueling an increasingly hostile, if not toxic, climate.

Yet, research indicates that conflict can serve two positive functions:

When confronting times of adversity, successfully directing conflict to encourage people and their affinity groups to become more diverse and inclusive of other perspectives weakens the hubris underlying most conflict. Then, as individuals and members of affinity groups learn to think through, reconsider, and strengthen or amend their ideas, fresh perspectives and new ideas can be generated.

Fostering a Spirit of Cooperation

Especially when people who think differently confront uncertain times, conflict is likely to be messy at best, and painful, if not debilitating, at worst. When left unaddressed, conflict likely won’t disappear, making success less likely.

Conflict challenges public administrators to direct their energy towards purposive ends. Forging a pathway leading toward greater understanding of and appreciation for differences—especially the multiple means to the singular end of actualizing the organization’s purpose—strengthens the spirit of cooperation. Over time, public administrators can then facilitate constructive conversations that navigate the conflict that’s spurred by disagreement in times of uncertainty.

Elusive as success in navigating conflict may appear, it’s not measured in the absence of conflict. Instead, it’s dependent upon how public administrators courageously direct conflict toward purposive ends.

While Chester Barnard called this strategy the, “Moral factor of administration,”—increasing the spirit of cooperativeness—the ASPA Code of Ethics identifies encouraging open expression of views and providing administrative channels for dissent as a strategy, “To promote ethical organizations.”

For public administrators, successfully navigating conflict needn’t be a vain hope, but rather a goal that’s actualized through their ethical leadership.


Author: Richard M. Jacobs is a Professor of Public Administration at Villanova University, Acquisitions Editor of Public Integrity, and Chair of the ASPA Section on Ethics and Integrity in Governance. His research interests include organization theory, leadership ethics, ethical competence, and teaching and learning in public administration. Jacobs may be contacted at: [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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