Handling Conflict when Announcing and Managing Change: An Interview with Behavioural Training and Coaching Consultant, Nick Girling

Nick Girling, founder of Nick Girling Associates, is a Behavioural Training and Coaching Consultant who delivers development programmes across the globe for leaders at all levels.

CIM Yorkshire Board members Ashley O’Neill and Jessica Dodds recently caught up with Nick to understand more about how we as leaders can better handle conflict and manage change.    

Thanks for making time to speak to us Nick. Our first question relates to your intriguing profession – what does a career in behavioural training and coaching look like and what motivated you to pursue it?

It involves working with leaders, managers and individual contributors/commercial people to help them improve the impact they have on their environment (colleagues, team, customers and friends and family) by supporting them with three things:

  1. Their mindset: How open are they to changing needs, personal growth and trying new stuff?
  2. Their toolset: What tools do they have in their personal and company toolbox to enable them to have a performance related conversation, tackle a difficult subject or deliver empowering delegation for example? There are many great and very valuable tools around. Some I have been lucky enough to be involved in the design of, some have been around since Adam was a lad.
  3. Their skillset: How good are they in delivery? This is the human communication piece and involves learning and practicing the tools with an open and growth mindset until they become proficient – even subconsciously competent if you know the model of 4 stages to a new behaviour.

The way I support them is with education – training and coaching them to practice (just like a sports coach would) and then holding them accountable to apply the changes regularly in the workplace. Behaviour is everything, so I focus carefully on the small details and give feedback about what I see in a non-judgemental way. It is up to them to decide what they want to do with the feedback.

I got into this line of work because I have always been interested in inspirational and motivational mindset development – something I worked on myself whilst spending seven or eight years during my 20’s in commission-only sales roles. At the same time, I played a reasonably high level of club rugby so saw the value of mentoring and coaching, and what a team firing on all cylinders could achieve, first-hand. Then, at the age of 38, I was sent on a leadership development programme when I was already doing quite well in my career, and the trainer gave me the following feedback after only knowing me for 4 hours (below is almost verbatim):

“Nick, you seem like a nice guy with good intentions, and you are clearly an experienced and knowledgeable sales leader…and you talk more than you listen and you are only really open to other people’s ideas and contributions if they are closely or completely aligned with your own”

This was so insightful and so accurate, and it set me on a journey of self-reflection that has never stopped to this day.

What advice can you give us as leaders to ensure we keep getting better at what we do every day? 

Ask your team, your colleagues and your family what you do well and where you could improve. Keep asking (periodically, not every five minutes) until they believe you mean it and start really telling you about your blind spots. Really listen to the feedback – absorb, reflect and implement changes with continuous check-ins to see how you are doing. No matter how senior you get, never stop asking for real feedback, and never stop practicing changes in your behaviour.

You’ve helped a wide range of managers and supervisors across the world develop their behaviours and leadership styles, but you would assume that people at these levels would already know how to be good leaders. Why do they need this help?

Simply because no one knows what they don’t know. Another pair of eyes, even on an exceptional performer is always a good thing. This is why Roger Federer still has a tennis coach and Atul Gwande still has people observe his surgeries.

Furthermore, we all get into bad habits and cumulatively that leads to bad cultures that the people on the inside don’t recognise because they are so embroiled.

Lastly, an enormous amount of people become very senior in management and leadership without ever being challenged on their behaviour. My colleagues and I will always challenge if we see behaviour incongruent with high-level leadership. As an example, I was once flown all the way to the USA by my contact (who was an HR VP and on the executive team), for a meeting with the CEO of a large business. He spent the first twelve minutes of the meeting not looking at me and addressing his colleague. I challenged him with feedback around minute thirteen.

Your upcoming workshop focuses on better change management for leaders, but how do we know when it is the right time to initiate change?

Great question. Often you don’t and 70% of department change programmes, M&A’s or culture change initiatives don’t work out as expected. There are due diligence checks, needs analysis, market research and internal consultations that you can do to minimise the risk of failure.

Is change always about moving/influencing those at the top - surely change happens at all levels? And, should it always be delivered top down? 

Yes! In my view, without the heads of an organisation being seen to lead a guiding coalition which is represented by demonstrating how hard they are working to aspire to exemplary behaviour, things won’t work out well. This is one of the major reasons change programmes fail – a lack of synergy and joined-up behaviour across the leadership team.

Why do leaders encounter conflict when announcing and implementing change, if a need for change has been identified and justification for its need can be made?

They don’t always, but when they do it is often because the individual or the majority of the collective organisation does not understand the need, is fearful of whether they can succeed and thrive, and is not assured of what will not change. Most importantly, there may be no or little vision to aspire to. We can all be told to do something and will comply for a while. We are inspired by a vision of the future that we understand and see everyone else striving to achieve.

What is your biggest tip for effectively managing conflict as a leader?

Embrace it with good behaviours and respectful dialogue. Conflict is good! Nothing great was ever achieved without seriously conflicting views. Obviously pick your battles and only embrace conflict that leads to supporting the vision. Don’t sweat the small stuff unless the instances are indicative of a bigger cultural problem.

Change can be emotional, especially for legacy colleagues and they say you should deal with facts, but sometimes that isn't entirely possible. What top tips do you have for taking the emotion out of it?

I would rather keep the emotion in! Enabling people to share feelings such as fear, anger, mistrust and how vulnerable they feel is a good thing, as long as it is respectfully articulated and de-personalised. Once we have put how we really feel on the table we can look at a suite of tools to help people to take distance and put things into perspective with facts and analysis.

The world around us changes quickly, so how do we avoid becoming change weary both at an individual and an organisational level?

I would say two things in my experience.

  1. Only change what really matters and what will really help reach the vision. Change for change’s sake is silly. I have many examples when a new head of function has joined an organisation and introduced a new model – pretty close to what was there already, (and the one before that!) – just because they want to make a mark in a new role.
  1. Listen to the people. Communication in change programmes is vital and it is essential that it is not just one way. “Telling is not selling” was drummed into me as a rookie sales guy and it has stuck with me all my career. Ask questions, canvass opinions and engage – genuinely engage.

Finally, they say the only constant is change. Do you think a post-pandemic world will take change in a different way? 

Not really. I hope we press a global reset button and realise we don’t need as much stuff in our houses, as many letters after our name, or as many 0’s on our payslips. I hope we realise the value of humankind and human interaction again. I hope we value our planet and our neighbours, even if they empty our bins or change our dressings in hospital. Unfortunately, I think that if we become disease free, even if only for a few years, it won’t be long before we are changing everything back to how it was before. I hope I am wrong!


Nick Girling is the Founder and Managing Director of Training, Coaching and Business Consultancy, Nick Girling Associates.

You can follow Nick on LinkedIn or reach out directly via email: nickg@nickgirlingassociates.com