When Should We Intervene in Conflict at Work?

Icelandic geyser erupting

Few people enjoy conflict, yet conflict is inevitable in organizational life. In this post, we’ll explore a topic that can baffle people: when should we intervene in conflict?

Speed Leas, refining a model he co-created with Helen Weingarten, outlines five levels of conflict. The highest intensity is Level 5: Intractable. In this stage, it’s nearly impossible to reconcile battling parties. The conflict has become destructive. Parties are vicious, set on the obliteration of the other, and willing to suffer personally to hurt the other.

We never want intractable conflict on the job. Yet, so often, people avoid intervening until it’s too late. We don’t intervene for many reasons: we’re too busy, we don’t know what to do, we fear making things worse, we’re uncomfortable. We avoid conflict and it grows until it’s too large and too hot to handle.

In Deep Democracy, we call these lurking conflicts fish. As they escalate, they mutate into sharks with teeth and the ability to harm. It’s easier to work with small fish, with little tensions, before they grow. This means that it’s best to address issues when they’re still in Level 1: Problem to Solve or Level 2: Disagreement, according to Leas’ model.

Addressing Level 1 and Level 2 conflicts needn’t be fraught. They can start lightly:

  • Hey, could I talk with you about something?
  • I’m concerned about [issue]. Could we talk it through together?

It’s helpful to remember that people are creative, resourceful, and whole. People can come up with helpful, innovative solutions if invited to do so with respect and a spirit of partnership. People are also whole: not broken, not problems to fix. They might contribute to the problem, but they’re not the problem. Changing your mindset from “they’re the problem” to “we can figure this out together” can significantly improve the quality and outcomes of the discussion.

These conversations work best when we’re not overwhelmed with emotion. That means that we may need to give ourselves time before jumping into a conversation.

To summarize: it’s best to intervene in conflict before it escalates. Find the fish before they become sharks. Invite others into the conversation as problem-solving partners and make sure we’re not overwhelmed by emotion. Intervening may take time, but it’s much less painful and more likely to succeed than waiting.

Where are tensions in your organization or team that should be addressed before they don’t escalate into destructive, intractable conflict?

For more information about Deep Democracy, visit www.DeepDemocracyUSA.com or email maya@DeepDemocracyUSA.com.

Geyser image by Maurice Angres, Pixabay.

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