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Transforming Conflict in High Functioning Teams: Starting with the Self

Updated: Apr 15, 2021

The problem stems not so much from the fact that conflict exists, but from how we deal with it.

Businesses lose resources, time, and momentum due to unresolved conflict and work cultures that attempt to suppress critique and feedback. Teams that implement positive strategies to handle conflict report much lower turnover, better productivity and increased overall success and satisfaction. Addressing conflict in open and transparent ways invites dialogue and dramatically improves the way teams work together. However, before organizations can take on transforming conflict into productive communication, team members need to understand what conflict is and how we as individuals approach conflict in different situations.

Read more articles on our publication Transformative Readership


What is Conflict?

In order to address conflict we must first define it. Defining conflict through violence is limiting in scope and ignores the most common forms of conflict found in the workplace. Conflict is any situation in which there is a lack of alignment in our beliefs, needs, or interests. It is normal, natural, and frequent. Conflicts occur internally (such as moral conundrums), interpersonally (between one or more individuals), or systemically (involving policies or practices).

Office cultures that avoid or suppress conflict run the risk of creating environments in which people internalize issues and diverse opinions, ideas, and innovations are discouraged. They miss out on essential dialogue around how to make improvements.

If conflict is so great, why is it often portrayed so negatively? The problem stems not so much from the fact that conflict exists, but from how we deal with it. People approach and express conflict differently, with varying results. By understanding how we as individuals respond in conflict, we can begin to take more intentional and self-aware steps to transform the situation.

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Modes of Conflict

We each hold different beliefs and attitudes about conflict and how we can and should approach situations of disagreement. One model for this is Thomas-Kilmann's which describes 5 modes, or approaches to conflict.

Avoid | postponing or withdrawing from a situation

Accommodate | yielding to another’s position

Compete | defending one’s position

Compromise | splitting the difference

Collaborate | co-creating a new position

People tend to favor certain modes, though we may use different approaches with specific people or in particular situations, depending on whether we are prioritizing our own needs or the needs of others.

Each mode has pros and cons, so it is important to recognize the limitations of the approaches we tend to rely on, and to expand our range to be able to intentionally select whichever mode is appropriate for a given context. That said, being able to be self-aware and "objective" in situations of conflict is challenging, and can be greatly exacerbated by power dynamics and fluctuating emotions.


Physiological Responses to Stress

All conflict is influenced by the power dynamics present and individual's perceived safety, trust, and respect. In situations of conflict it can be hard for either party to display vulnerability and compassion, which often unintentionally decreases safety and increases power disparity among the individuals or parties involved. To address conflict meaningfully, it is important to authentically examine and openly acknowledge our own identities and how these may serve to increase or decrease our perceived power in a given situation.

Power can come from formal assignment, such as a title or position within the company, but it can also be cultural and systemic, stemming from different parts of our identity such as gender, race, language, education, or class. This systemic power may not be as immediately visible, but plays a strong role in how people carry themselves in conflict situations and in the assumptions and expectations they may have about how the conflict should be resolved.

When conflicts involve issues that matter to us deeply or when perceiving little power or control in a situation, it can trigger our body’s physiological stress responses: fight, flight, and freeze. At this point, rather than taking an intentional approach to the conflict we may find ourselves reacting emotionally. These responses are innate and instinctive ways to defend ourselves from a perceived attack. If we feel it's possible, we may fight back and attempt to defeat "the attack." However, if winning seems impossible, we may avoid or side-step the issue or simply shut down and tune out.

Those with greater power in a situation often find it easier to stay “objective” or “rational” in these intense conflicts as physiological responses to stress are less likely to be triggered, which can in turn be inaccurately perceived as rationale for why a position is correct, or a dismissal of other's perspectives.

Whether you are in a position of power or not, look out for safety and the symptoms that people are feeling unsafe (the physiological responses to stress, for example). It is important to pause conversation as soon as possible when a lack of safety is observed, and to note if it is one sided or if both sides are feeling unsafe.

Here's how to create a psychologically safe environment for less stress

If you are the one experiencing a lack of power and high stress, try to find an opportunity to request the conversation pause or switch to a different method of communication, or ask to call in a third party to help mediate and support the conversation.

While it is essential for everyone to work together to create a safer space where people can express , those with the most power are the ones who can and should be first to model and prioritize safety in approaching situations of conflict.


The First Step

Being able to reflect on how we are approaching and feeling in a conflict is the initial step to transforming the situation, because it lays the groundwork for how we understand the problem and how we communicate that to one another. Also, consider whether conflicts you create are results of your lenses of bias, or if they are connected to your moral convictions.

If you want any help, we offer numerous services to help optimize your workspace and explore your obstacles and opportunities. Learn more about what we offer by reading our brochure.


As always, we strive to co-construct ideas and solutions together. While dialogue, alternative perspectives, and questions are encouraged, please note that extreme comments will be deleted as they do not foster collaborative communication. Instead, I would encourage you to message me directly through our website -- I am more than happy to continue conversations in person or over a phone call.


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