Conflict as Catalyst

my brother and I had a long standing conflict about bill cosby. it only made us stronger.

The following post is adapted from an internal newsletter I wrote at my last company. Please only apply what makes sense for you and your context. Thanks for reading!

If trust is the foundation of team power, then conflict is the catalyst. For any of you keeping track of my metaphors, no, catalysis does not generally proceed from a foundation, but I’m going to mix metaphors like I do drinks. (Is she a good bartender, you ask yourself? No, she is not a good bartender.)

Assuming that the foundation for trust has been laid, perhaps through conscious application of trust-building practices, or else just as a natural consequence of getting to know each other in a “trustworthy-enough” context, teams of people will naturally enter the storming stage, during which conflict emerges as a catalytic factor. Conflict is one of the hardest excellence factors to embrace (analogous both to the “terrible twos” and the teenage years, if you compare teams with kids).

The storming phase is known as a time of testing boundaries, unpleasant feelings and trials of patience. On the emotional spectrum it is dominated by activated fight-or-flight responses, and accelerated thought patterns alternating between self-condemnation and condemnation of the others.

However, within its passionate dynamics are contained the raw materials your team will use to achieve greatness in later stages, so competent navigation of this stage is well worth the pain. Just as with teenagers and toddlers, the experience of going through conflict is part of growth and activates key powers and processes that are relevant for succeeding as an organism.

rainbow as symbol for the reward of storming

Whereas the trust-building forming stage relates to a team’s psychological drive to bond together around a purpose, the conflict-ridden storming stage is about the need to differentiate. Differentiation inside the group brings out unique strengths of each contributor, while learning to face conflict enables the team to forge commitment, accountability and excellence.

As always, I will give you my corporate-therapist view of our collective soul with respect to this aspect of team performance, including tips for building on strengths and engaging with weaknesses constructively.

1. Emphasize Emotional Health at Work. The organization I work in at the moment supports constructive conflict management through its emphasis on how employees feel. In many ways the company signals that mental and emotional states are important. Material comforts (spacious, environment, stocked fridge, lavish parties) are probably the clearest sign that employees are meant to feel well inside these walls, but I include the emphasis on physical health (sponsored yoga classes and sports groups), and the existence of my own role dedicated to individual and collective psychological health. Credit to the leadership for seeing the salience of feeling good at work.

For inspiration, you may enjoy reading about Google’s incredibly popular emotional intelligence training program. Explicit urging that employees take note of mind states, emotions and sensations, consider these to be important information about the project (not just about themselves), and then courageously verbalize what they get from their mindful self-reflection, helps teams become aware of and enter into conscious and constructive conflict. Constructive conflict gives teams a chance to overcome the factors that produce mediocrity, while unconscious conflict can easily explode or destroy the team bond established during formation.

To supercharge this conflict factor

We can continue to encourage awareness and communication of conflict-related feelings. I think by now many employees feel secure that if they have a problem, there is someone in the organization willing to listen, at the very least inside the HR team if not inside and leading their own teams and studios. This is not an accident — collectively we have worked diligently over the last years to create the kind of relationship with employees which is deserving of that trust.
To be even better in this regard we could do more to make sure that employees know that their ugly, unpleasant feelings (aka the feelings that go along with conflict) are also important and welcome as catalysts of excellence in the team dynamic.
geological forces at odds create unique beauty

Another reason why we should do more to coax negative experiences out into the light, where we can engage with them consciously, is because openness makes these factors more constructive.

When some aspect of the psyche, such as anger, is banished from the group, it will not disappear but rather take on a shadow form, such as passive aggression, apathy, depression, absenteeism, burnout, etc. It is much easier to deal with the energy of conflict when it is recognized as a positive thing rather than resisted and feared. Just like the excluded fairy in the sleeping beauty story, if not invited to give a blessing, the energy of conflict will give a curse.

The biggest thing we can do for this is to hold and verbalize the value of self-reflection and self-responsible communication of experiences and needs. When people know what they sense, communicate it responsibly, and are willing to have a constructive conflict about it, we are on the way to excellence.

2. Acknowledge and tackle conflicts. Over the last months, more and more employees, managers, and executives have come to me with the observation that there is a conflict in their team or with which they themselves are grappling. This is very positive for emotional health in general, and for our conflict-averse culture, a step in the right direction for helping teams perform.

To supercharge this conflict factor

We can increase our own and others’ awareness of the topic of conflict through self-education and through taking time with the team to understand the dimensions of it. Managers can be on the lookout for conflict and learn to be more proactive in managing it. We have mediation, coaching, and education about conflict in-house available to all. The Conflict Resolution Network is a good digital resource for self-education.

3. Empathize. Upon becoming aware of a conflict, by far the most common response I see inside teams is one of concern for each other. There is seldom a lack of care in teams.

To supercharge this conflict factor

We can work on the precision and boundaries in our empathetic communication whenever people tell us about their conflicts (or when we suspect that they are experiencing conflict). My opinion on the right tack to take with people is one which validates feelings and experiences while placing responsibility for action predominantly in the hands of the person having the feelings.
For example, if someone tells me that they have a conflict with their coworker, I may say something like “Yes, I can see how you would feel that way in that situation. What do you think is the right strategy for you to address this?”
At the same time, we need to balance our feelings of empathy with good personal boundaries (meaning we must make sure not to take too much responsibility for the feelings and experiences of others), in order to avoid enmeshment.