The Psychology Of Conflict, And 4 Ways To Work It Out

Although rarely fun, conflict is not always bad: it can evoke creativity and refine analysis. To glean value from tensions, you need to understand how they come to be–and how you can resolve them.

The Psychology Of Conflict, And 4 Ways To Work It Out


When the stakes are high and conflicting opinions meet uncertainty, trying to remain cool and logical can seem like a losing game. Understanding the cognitions, behaviors, and reactions that underpin conflict is vital to working as a team.

Hot and Cool Cognition

Research by cognitive psychologists Janet Metcalfe and Walter Mischel showed that we each have two distinct cognitive systems through which we process events. Trying to understand the mechanisms that allow people to delay gratification–a crucial ability for everything from goal achievement to weight control–Metcalfe and Mischel identified two types of human cognition, which they called “hot” and “cool.” The hot system, when engaged, triggers people to respond emotionally and quickly. In this case they are often said to speak or act in the heat of the moment. The cool system, in contrast, is deliberate and careful. When using our cool system, we can slow down and gather our thoughts. The cool system is the basis for self-regulation and self-control. Consequently, it is a necessary tool when (not if) conflict occurs.

Spontaneous Reactions

Teams break down when conflict heats up; rather than triggering new creative thinking, it works instead to slow progress. Often, individuals will go back and forth, repeating the same points over and over again. Conflicts typically heat up when three conditions are present: controversial or limited data that are subject to differing interpretations, high uncertainty, and high stakes. Conversations can get especially heated when people hold different values or belief systems, or have different interests and incentives. This can make aspects of the conflict hard to discuss productively, because people often hesitate to mention the personal gain they anticipate from one of the potential decision outcomes.

Management researchers who study conflict in teams have concluded that conflict is productive, as long as teams stay away from the personal and emotional aspects of conflict. Task conflict–a difference of opinion about the product design–is useful. Relationship conflict–personal friction or emotionality–is counterproductive and should be avoided. Task conflict improves the quality of decisions by engaging different points of view, while relationship conflict harms group dynamics and working relations.


Many conflicts arise from personal differences in values or interests but are presented as professional differences in opinion. For example, if some executives believe that good design sells products while others believe that customers are primarily motivated by price, a conflict that pits design against price is a conflict of values. Values are beliefs we hold dear, and when our values are dismissed by others, even inadvertently, we react with strong emotions.

In contrast, calm and cool resolution of differences is easy when the problem is pure task conflict. In such cases, disagreement readily submits to resolution through facts and reasoning. Differences of opinion can be adjudicated through calculations or analyses that unambiguously assess the different options under consideration. In these situations, the advice to steer clear of relationship conflict and focus on task conflict is both feasible and sensible. However, when conflicts pit values against each other, it can be not only necessary but also fruitful to engage in thoughtful discussions of the emotions, values, and personal struggles behind the conflicts. When done skillfully, this kind of conversation allows meaningful progress on important challenges and debates, some that lie at the heart of a company’s strategy.

Engaging conflict productively cannot be accomplished by avoiding emotions and personal differences. Openness is required. This skill starts with willingness to explore rather than shy away from different beliefs and values. It requires acknowledging emotional reactions openly and exploring what led to them, rather than pretending they don’t exist. It requires recognizing the inseparability of task and relationship conflicts in knowledge-intensive work in uncertain contexts. Team members must understand that “winning” the argument does not usually produce the best solution. Instead, the best solutions usually involve some integration and synthesis of differences. When people put their heads together, truly intent on learning from one another, they can almost always come up with a solution that is better than anyone could have come up with alone.

Authentic communication about how we think or what makes us tick helps to build the genuine, resilient relationships that are crucial to effective teams.

Leaders who do not fully grasp the concept that conflict of some sort is necessary and even desirable to teaming are destined to fail in all but the most routine of work environments. To close the gap between how we want to lead and how we actually do lead, more of us need to learn the leadership skills to engage conflict directly and effectively. This takes commitment, patience, a willingness to make mistakes, self-awareness, and, of course, a sense of humor. At the very least, it involves a willingness to examine one’s own role in a situation, even in a heated disagreement, and to wonder: “How am I contributing to the problem here? ”

Four Ways Leaders Can Deal With Conflict:

  1. Identify the nature of conflict: Though a difference of opinion about a product design or a work process is useful, personal friction and personality clashes are counterproductive. Understanding the differences between types of conflict allows leaders to better manage contentious exchanges.
  2. Model good communication: Good communication when confronting conflict, combines thoughtful statements with thoughtful questions, so as to allow people to understand the true basis of a disagreement and to identify the rationale behind each position.
  3. Identify shared goals: By identifying and also embracing shared goals, teams are able to overcome the fundamental attribution errors that erode respect and instead develop an environment of trust.
  4. Encourage difficult conversations: Through good communication, it’s useful to engage in authentic conversations that help build resilient relationships and put aside ideological and personal differences.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, Inc. from Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge
by Amy C. Edmondson. Copyright (c) 2012 by Amy C. Edmondson.

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