The Five Levels of Conflict
Bringing people together for any length of time (say a project) can naturally breed conflict among team members. While not all conflict is bad — when left unchecked, it can escalate into team dysfunction and distract from project goals. One of the hallmarks of high functioning teams is not that they avoid conflict; rather, they navigate conflict constructively. As a coach, manager, team lead, or team member, it’s important to identify the types of conflict that are occurring within your team so you can initiate intervention strategies, facilitate healthy communication, or at the very least, not get caught in the mud flinging.
Level 1: Questioning (Constructive Disagreement)
Usually characterized as constructive disagreement, level 1 conflict is a hallmark of a team focused on fixing the problem(s) at hand. Information flows openly and honestly. Team members use language that is direct, specific, and based on facts — clarifying questions are used to discern what was said. A high degree of trust and mutual respect is shared within the team.
“If we don’t trust one another, then we aren’t going to engage in open, constructive, ideological conflict. And we’ll just preserve a sense of artificial harmony.”
–The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
Level 2: Disagreement
Team members start to own their perspectives about the problem(s). Team members personalize opposing perspectives and may engage in separate conversations outside the group as a whole. Healthy joking around starts to look like personal jabs and shots. Team members start building walls and are wary to extend their bridges to members with opposing perspectives. Clarifying questions are used to discern how something was said and why it was said.
Level 3: Challenging
Team members fully own their perspectives. An opposing point of view is a threat to them as a person. Discussions are no longer about fixing the problem; the focus is on winning. Often, past mistakes are drudged up and flung across like mud; it leaves everyone in it’s path feeling dirty and upset. Power struggles begin to form, factions coalesce, and language is generalized. Blaming others and personal attacks are used to describe who is at fault for the problem(s).
Level 4: Call to Arms
Team members are committed to their point of view — belief runs rampant that the ‘other side’ will doom us. A ‘my way or the highway’ stench is in the air. Threats of quitting the team or pressuring management to remove dissenters from the team become the only course of action among competing factions. Suddenly, the entire office is aware of the conflict and faction leaders are actively recruiting others from outside the team to validate their point of view or attack members of their team. Language become ideological, factions polarize themselves, extremists within the factions sabotage others’ efforts.
Level 5: All Out War
The tension in the room weighs heavily on everyone when the team meets. Team members physically distance themselves from one another and consistently raise their voices at inappropriate times. It’s not enough to win anymore, dissidents must be taught a lesson. People need to be physically separated before they hurt each other. Violence is imminent and no constructive outcomes can be had.
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