Managing Complexity with Courage, Conflict and Engagement

ILOD Principal Consultant Douglas O’Loughlin outlines four key leadership competencies to cultivate in a world of greater complexity and uncertainty.

Date Posted

15 Jun 2014


Issue 13, 14 May 2014


In the early 1990s, Management Professor Peter Vaill introduced leaders to the term “permanent white water change”, indicating that we had transitioned from a world of managing changes one at a time, to one where changes were flowing through organisations all the time.1

Now there is a new term to describe the environment we live in, coined by the US military: VUCA — Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.

If the external environment is in such a state, how then do we transform ourselves to be agile enough to respond in these times? We need to assess the way we think, make decisions and act, to ensure all are aligned with the realities we face in society today. Decision-making on policy and organisation changes by small groups of people has lost much of its utility. Even the best thought-through policies and change initiatives will fail to live up to expectations without wider levels of engagement.

There are practices that can support success in such a world and enhance transformational capacity for leaders: be courageous, embrace diversity, engage in healthy conflict and bring more voices into the room. Here are some ways to bring these practices to life in organisations.

Be Courageous

Social science experiments, such as ones conducted by Solomon Asch on conformity,2 and Stanley Milgram on obedience to authority,3 have revealed the underlying lateral and hierarchical social pressures that exist in organisations.

In social systems, it can be challenging to speak up with differing opinions in front of peers and those of a higher level. If we are going to nurture a Public Service and society at large that actively engages on the challenges we face, we need people who are courageous enough to speak up for what they believe in, perhaps on behalf of some of the voices that are not in the room. One of the definitions of integrity is being the same person you are both on the inside and outside. If you are a leader or in a position to be heard, express your inner voice with compassion when it may serve a higher purpose.

As a leader, be sure to also acknowledge courage when you see it. Whether you agree or disagree with the point being made, you can recognise those willing to share their opinions.

How willing are you to share your feedback and opinions with peers and those higher up in the hierarchy, when they are different than the rest and perhaps challenge the status quo? How much do you celebrate those who exhibit courage in meetings and town halls?

Even the best thought-through policies and change initiatives will fail to live up to expectations without wider levels of engagement.

Embrace Diversity

There are many types of diversity, such as nationality, ethnicity, age, gender, personality type and position in the organisation’s hierarchy, to name just a few.

How often are you reaching out to have a conversation with people who might have a different perspective from you? Engagement can start small, through short conversations before a meeting, in the hall, perhaps even in a lift. Or you can follow the example of Mr Liak Teng Lit, CEO of Singapore’s Alexandra Health Systems, who has for many years made it a habit to invite his most irate customers for tea.

Perhaps a difference of opinion can arise from personality differences. For example, you may like structure and closure, whereas one of your colleagues may appreciate flexibility and openness. In these VUCA times, holding off on making a decision is often a more effective approach, because new information may arise to help inform the way forward.

Another example of how to use diversity as leverage and do things differently: It is a commonly held stereotype that a mentor is an older person providing wisdom and guidance to a younger person. However, these days, there is a growing trend of senior leaders with young mentors. These young mentors can offer insight into the younger generation, and senior leaders can get tips on the latest technologies and cultures that are shaping the world.

How often are you in dialogue with those who see the world differently from you?

Engage in Healthy Conflict

A good indicator of the health of any team or organisation is the amount of healthy conflict that occurs during a meeting, whether it is a weekly staff meeting or an annual strategic planning retreat. Management author Patrick Lencioni4 suggests that healthy conflict in a team can create higher levels of commitment and accountability, and that this leads to better results.

The research is clear on what conflict means for any human system. Whether it is a marriage or a management team, the manner in which people disagree is a telling sign of the quality of the relationship(s). Healthy conflict is not personal; it is disagreeing on approaches and strategies. A tip from John Gottman,5 a scientist who studies marriages, is to show some level of agreement and appreciation, even when in conflict. After all, it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable.

Sometimes people do not invite certain people to meetings on setting policies, because they do not want to deal with differences, or are concerned that the meeting is likely to take longer if there are disagreements. In the short term, this may save some time, but in the long term, it leads to lower levels of trust and less-than-robust decisions. How would you feel if you find out a policy from your agency, one that impacts your division, was announced and you had no chance to give input? Remember the IKEA effect, which is that people support and feel more ownership with things they have helped to create. So spend the extra time and hear all the opinions. With a little effort, you can tap into what Tom Crum calls “The Magic of Conflict”.6

How much healthy disagreement exists in the meetings you chair and participate in?

Can you trust yourself to bring diversity into a conversation and achieve optimal results?

Becoming a courageous leader who embraces diversity and conflict while creating whole system engagement is not usually an overnight shift for most people.

Bring More Voices into the Room

These days having a few people who are good at “systems thinking” may not be enough to create powerful engagement and smart policies. John Scherer and Roland Sullivan7 have argued “there is great power in thinking whole system, and in being a whole system as you think”. When people with diverse views but a shared stake in the health of the whole system get to talk about issues in a well-designed process, common ground, not conflict, can emerge.

Years ago, the Singapore Police Force brought 800 officers together for two days of Strategic Planning. Rather than the senior team creating a plan and selling it down through the organisation, the idea was to co-create the plan. More recently, the Ministry of Communications and Information brought together about 230 Communications Officers from around the Public Service to talk about transforming Government Communications. The Land Transport Authority took the opportunity to refresh its mission and values with approximately 180 people thinking together, rather than through small focus groups. In both of these interventions, the community was engaged, members got to hear diverse perspectives and the mission of the initiative was accelerated.

More is also being done to engage the public, as we reach out and get individuals and organisations involved earlier in the policymaking process. Our Singapore Conversation was a good start to this type of engagement, and provided evidence that our citizens are willing to engage with us, and that we can all handle differences of opinion for the sake of co-creating more robust policies and better shared outcomes.

How willing are you to engage a wider range of stakeholders in your sense making, policymaking, and decision making?

Continue to Build your Capacity

Becoming a courageous leader who embraces diversity and conflict while creating whole system engagement is not usually an overnight shift for most people. Think of yourself as a martial artist; you know most of the moves, now you are working on moving more smoothly, quickly and in more complex situations. Here are some tips on getting your black belt:

Be Courageous: If you haven’t pushed your own boundaries of late, choose an issue that you are passionate about, and reach out to a trusted colleague on how to best bring it up in a larger setting. If you are already rather outspoken, get feedback on how you can make sure your messages have maximum impact.

Engage Diversity: Start with small informal chats, be curious and ask questions to which you don’t know the answers.

Engage in Healthy Conflict: Dialogue skills are crucial when differences arise. Stay focused on the issue at hand, balance advocacy and inquiry, and continue to look at how the issue is being framed. During or after a healthy conflict, be sure to acknowledge and celebrate that you all have cared enough to disagree openly and skilfully enough to disagree in such an agreeable manner.

Bring More Voices into the Room: You can start small, by adding more people to the meetings you chair, and run your meetings in an engaging, effective style. If you want to run a large meeting with hundreds of people, but are not sure how to do this effectively, find a facilitator who has this expertise and plan something together.


These principles are not wholesale substitutes for traditional leadership qualities. Instead, they build upon and expand these proven competencies in ways that, over time, help nurture personal and institutional capacity to cope with complex situations that call for shared ownership and effort. The desired outcome is the growth of stronger organisational cultures in and across our agencies, and an even more resilient and engaged society.


Douglas O’Loughlin, PhD, is a Principal Consultant at the Institute of Leadership and Organisation Development (ILOD), Civil Service College. He consults with senior leaders and organisation development practitioners across the Public Service in areas such as organisation development, leadership development, change management, large group engagement, facilitation and team effectiveness.


  1. Peter Vaill, Learning as a Way of Being: Strategies for Survival in a World of Permanent White Water (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass 1996).
  2. Solomon E. Asch, “Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgment,” in H. Guetzkow, ed., Groups, Leadership and Men (Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press, 1951).
  3. Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority (New York: Harper, 2009).
  4. Patrick Lencioni, The Advantage: Why Organisational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012).
  5. John Gottman, Making Relationships Work (Harvard Business Review, December 2007).
  6. Thomas F. Crum, The Magic of Conflict: Turning a Life of Work into a Work of Art, 2nd ed. (New York: Touchstone, 1998).
  7. William Rothwell and Roland Sullivan, Practicing OD: A Guide for Consultants (San Francisco: Pfeiffer, 2005).

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