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Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations
Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations

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4 Getting on with agonistic conflict

The most obvious way in which you can instigate more agonistic conflict in your workplace is introducing the practice into meetings and also into informal conversations. The next time you think a discussion or meeting is falling flat, why not try a more conflictual approach? Say out loud that you disagree with something or that something is making you feel uncomfortable or express a contrary view. Of course, you might want to share with colleagues in advance that you have decided to adopt this strategy as a result of this course, so that they know you’re not being difficult for no apparent reason.

You could set time aside in people’s diaries in order to have a proper debate about an issue. Ask people in advance to prepare cases, rooted in evidence, experience and good ethical reasoning. Such sessions can be formally structured, as you would in an organised debate, or be much more informal, with the general expectation that there will be some good natured challenge taking place. You might want to conduct such a session away from the normal meeting room, in order to symbolise a different space and dynamic. Finally, you would want this debate to really be about something that matters to people. Holding a debate about something most people accept or about something trivial risks undermining the process and making it seem synthetic.

If you are working on a project that means a lot to you but is also challenging, you could adopt a critical friend to provide you with tough feedback. A Masters project that course co-author, Owain, recently marked was based around a large change project at a university concerning childcare. The student concerned very cleverly identified the biggest sceptic within the organisation and made a point of meeting this person frequently throughout the project in order to debate the issue and receive feedback. The point here is not to try to convince sceptics that they are incorrect but to genuinely be open to an alternative point of view. It also helps if this person is capable of such engagement.

Recognise power differentials and adapt your strategy accordingly. Not everyone is equal in terms of power and status within most organisations and certainly not everyone within any organisation feels equal in terms of power and status. If you are in a senior position or able to influence the culture of an organisation, then you do need to bear power differentials in mind. Some people will simply not feel safe in expressing their views publicly and agonistically. You need to seek out alternative ways of encouraging people to speak up. People need to feel safe and valued before they can express themselves. You might consider smaller-scale and informal ways of encouraging people to express challenging viewpoints or model such practice and invite them to do likewise. Or, an agonistic approach might just not be for everyone – some people prioritise other things in their lives other than work, come to work to quietly get on with it and would rather not get any more involved. This is their right and it is proper that their wishes are respected.

Assign someone a conflictual role. This is a sub-optimal strategy as it suggests that disagreement should be something that is manufactured. Nevertheless, if an organisation is unaccustomed to behaving in agonistic ways, assigning someone a role of challenge-generator can be a useful first step. They can adopt this role in meetings or even informally.

Activity 1 Experimenting with agonistic conflict

Timing: Allow about 30 minutes

Now that you have reflected on some of the ways that you could instigate more agonistic conflict in your workplace, you should actively experiment with this way of working and then reflect on how it went.

Think about an issue at work you judge could benefit from some more agonistic engagement. Now think about how you could go about generating some constructive challenges on this issue: Will you apply any of the approaches discussed above this activity? The next step is to try it out in practice at work. You might want to let your colleagues know about your thinking in advance; they might even want to try it too. Finally, spend 20 to 30 minutes writing about your experiences in your learning journal [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . Describe what you tried and why. Then reflect on what went well and what did not go so well. Make sure you title the post with the week number and the number of this activity, Week 5 Activity 1.


We hope you gained some useful insight from your experiment with agonistic challenge in your workplace and, furthermore, gained value in reflecting on the experience in writing afterwards. Rather than view the experience as an isolated one, why not plan in more depth how your organisation could become more challenge-friendly? You might want to make a plan and then report back in your learning journal about how your interventions are going.