Is infighting damaging your team morale and retention? Do you know what types of conflict are healthy and which are not? When you do intervene, do you have a strategy, or just ”wing it” and hope for the best?
People have different ideas; this diversity helps us overcome any individual shortcomings. It also means conflict is inevitable on projects. Whenever we have people contribute different opinions about a solution, there will be some level of conflict. Minor disagreement in the pursuit of a better solution is positive and welcome. Persistent bickering and personal attacks are destructive and need to be addressed. So how do we do that?
First, let's acknowledge conflict resolution approaches should be tailored to each unique situation. There is no single simple solution; otherwise, people would walk through the process themselves. Instead, we need to find our way based on the circumstances occurring.
So while there is no formula, it is helpful to have some strategies, some models to guide our thought process. This article outlines some basic models for conflict resolution to be aware of—and maybe incorporate if they help in your situation.
The first of the conflict models we will review helps us understand and characterize various levels of conflict. Intuitively, we know healthy debate helps us develop stronger solutions and is generally a good thing. At the other end of the scale, we know personal attacks and bullying cannot be tolerated and must be dealt with. Yet there is a whole spectrum between these extremes, each with triggers that can escalate the conflict and strategies to help de-escalate it, too.
1. Understand the Levels of Conflict
The “Five Levels of Conflict” model developed by Speed Leas shows the continuum:
The model starts with level one “Problem to Solve” and goes all the way up to level five “World War.” One way to determine the level of conflict is to focus on the language the team is using and compare it to Leas's description of the five levels:
- Level 1 (Problem to Solve) - The language is friendly and constructive. People use factual statements to justify their viewpoints. For example, team members may make statements such as, "Oh, I see what you are saying now. I still prefer the other approach, but I understand your suggestion."
- Level 2 (Disagreement) - The language starts to include self-protection. For example, team members may make statements like, "I know you think my idea won't work as well, but we tried your approach last time, and there were a lot of problems."
- Level 3 (Contest) - The team members start using distorted language, such as over-generalizations and magnified positions (such as "He always takes over the demo" and "If only she wasn't on the team…").
- Level 4 (Crusade) -The conflict becomes more ideological and polarized, such as "They're just plain wrong" and "It’s not even worth talking to them.”
- Level 5 (World War) - The language is fully combative. Opposing team members rarely speak directly to each other, instead speaking to those “on their side” and expressing sentiments like, “It’s us or them” and “We have to beat them!”
2. Recognize Healthy Conflict
Reading through the list reminds us of how bad things can get, so we should review why some conflict is okay and, in fact, necessary. For this, let’s examine Patrick Lencioni's “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” model. Taken from Pat’s book with the same name, it explains that problems start at the base of the pyramid and build on top of each other:
The first level, the base of the pyramid, is Level 1: an absence of trust. When there is an unwillingness to be open within the group (for example, admitting gaps in knowledge or mistakes), trust does not develop within the team. This leads to the next dysfunction, a fear of conflict where teams that lack trust do not engage in unfiltered debate. Instead, they just resort to veiled discussions and guarded comments.
This fear propagates up the pyramid, triggering the other problems. When there is a fear of conflict, it leads to problem 3: lack of commitment. Without passionate debate, team members rarely (if ever) buy-in and commit to decisions, though they may feign agreement during meetings.
This is the heart of why healthy conflict is desirable. It allows for the robust testing of ideas that leads to a strong commitment to the final group decision. When we have a lack of trust and fear of conflict, teams do not commit; instead, they (at best) follow “the project plan,” but not their internally vetted approach (which is always more powerful and motivating).
The best teams I have worked with have ongoing conversations challenging each other's suggestions and decisions. They always seem to be engaged in good-natured argument. The goal is a non-attached understanding of the decision process, idea testing and consensus-building. These types of conflict are productive and desirable. So how do we recognize them?
The table below contrasts healthy and unhealthy types of debate:
A healthy argument is focused on the specific idea, the decision, the data. Unhealthy arguments make things personal or use generalizations to dismiss any thought or suggestions from the other party.
3. Learn How to De-Escalate
When we see these unhealthy signs of conflict, we can try some of the de-escalation strategies suggested in the original Five Levels model we examined. These are shown below.
So, for example, if we sense examples of Level 3 (contest-type) conflict, we could try negotiating and getting to the facts. This is an attempt to de-escalate and take it from personal to factual.
4. Protect Yourself and Others
How we try to resolve conflict brings us to our next model, the dual-concern grid by Langton and Sadri. This model describes conflict resolution modes plotted on an axis that shows “Concern for Ourself” (Y-axis) and “Concern for Others” (X-axis)
There are many ways we can try to resolve conflict. We can use positional power and demand people stop arguing (graph top left: Use Force), but this is temporary and ineffective since it does not solve the problem. Alternatively, we could try to protect people by smoothing the problem instead and, say, do the work ourselves (graph bottom right: Accommodating). However, both of these approaches are sub-optimal.
Instead, we want to be in the upper-right quadrant of high concern for oneself and high concern for others. This is a collaborative mode of conflict resolution where we confront the issue and hopefully solve it. This all sounds good in theory, but how the heck do we face and collaboratively resolve conflict? This brings us to our last model.
5. Use the Confronting/Problem-Solving Steps
The “Three Steps for Managing Conflict Using a Confronting/Problem-Solving Approach” is a combination of various conflict-resolution models:
The three-step model starts with Step 1: defining the problem. This involves acknowledging the conflict, establishing common ground or goals (such as “we both want what is best for the organization”) and separating the problem from people. Next, Step 2 (explore and evaluate alternatives) is a “diverge” phase where many alternatives are explored and discussed. Finally, Step 3 (select best alternative) is the “converge” step where we agree on the best way forward.
As you can imagine, these tools are at best signposts on a tricky journey. They can help us navigate to a resolution, but they do not do the hard work of actively listening to both sides of the dispute and empathizing with people. That takes an investment of time and understanding. So too do the next steps of convincing people to let go of personal attachment to suggestions or opinions. Sometimes, people see things more objectively as they mature; sometimes they become more principled and entrenched in their thinking.
Conflicts are inevitable. At a healthy level, they are signs of a robust, vibrant team that is happy to test and improve their ideas and decisions. As conflict becomes personal, it also develops a damaging and counterproductive side. People disengage to distance and protect themselves. Then ideas are not tested so well, and blind spots and issues occur.
The solution is to care, to get involved, listen and try to diagnose the conflicts you see occurring. Do some reality testing by following up individually afterward: “You and Alisha seemed to be having a heated debate about the design. Did you come to an agreement you are okay with?"
Knowing when to let it go and when to step in is half the battle. Using these tools can help and provide some guidance when you do need to get involved.