The Trick to Resolving Conflict in Teams, According to a Neuroscientist

The Trick to Resolving Conflict in Teams, According to a Neuroscientist

By Luz Plaza, contributor via the Underground Group
7-minute read

In short:

  • By some estimates, unresolved workplace conflict costs U.S. companies hundreds of billions of dollars each year.

  • Leaders could be rewarding behaviors that increase conflict without knowing it, as well as failing to recognize the root of conflict on an individual level.

  • Use the neuroscience-backed tips below to help your team improve its conflict management skills.

If you are struggling with managing employee conflict, you are not alone. An oft-cited study on workplace conflict by CPP Inc. in 2008 showed that 85% of U.S. employees regularly experienced at least some conflict at the office. Do an online search for "employee conflict resolution strategies" today, and you'll get over 38 million results.

That CPP study also highlighted that average Americans spent 2.8 hours a week dealing with workplace conflict, which roughly translated into $359 billion in paid hours a year (calculated with an average hourly wage of $17.95). If those were the numbers over a decade ago, then just imagine them now.

The actual cost of conflict in the workplace, however, is likely much higher. The figure above looks only at time. It does not take into account other byproducts of conflict such as employee absenteeism, health costs, low morale, poor decision-making, lawsuits, employee turnover and disengagement, to name a few. 

For example, according to the 2017 Gallup report “State of the American Workplace,” actively disengaged employees cost U.S. companies between $483 billion and $605 billion in lost productivity yearly. 

As a manager, conflict management skills can help you protect against lost revenue and lost team members. We asked neuroscience and change management expert Nicole Gravagna, Ph.D. for her take.

What does science say about conflict at work?

Conflict is a mismatch between expectations and reality, a disagreement that takes place in our brain, according to Gravagna. 

“The human brain naturally registers when two thoughts don't agree, so our dissonance detector [the anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC] says, ‘Hey! What you have conceptualized for the world does not match the actual world. Alert! Alert!,’” Gravagna said. 

At work, many scenarios may trigger this alert, including when employees make decisions under uncertainty, when they feel excluded or threatened and when they are in physical or emotional pain. Conflict captures our full attention and makes us feel uncomfortable when something doesn't make sense. That’s why many have a hard time “letting go” of conflict-related situations, said Gravagna.

The human brain naturally registers when two thoughts don't agree. ... At work, many scenarios may trigger this alert.

Dealing with conflict also slows down the human brain. 

“Conflict requires mental processing that creates measurable delays in cognition and action,” said Gravagna. 

Types of conflict

Gravagna categorizes most conflict into one of two categories, experience conflict and integrity conflict, in her book “MindSET Your Manners.”

  • Experience conflict

Experience conflict happens when one person’s experience differs from another’s, thus making them believe their colleague is incorrect. 

Imagine this scenario: Person A spends a team’s marketing budget on newspaper and social media ads and sees a better performance from the newspaper ads. Person B has the exact opposite experience. If asked which type of ads is better, both will likely give different responses, thinking the other is incorrect. But, if they were to pause and ask questions about their respective markets, budgets and audiences, they would see neither was wrong, because the factors they’re considering are not the same.

  • Integrity conflict

Integrity conflict occurs when people fail to perform to their own standards. This type of conflict results in lingering thoughts and feelings about a particular situation or event. 

A practical way to think about integrity conflict is as “unfinished business” for the brain. At work, symptoms of this preoccupation include not following up, not showing up, doing a task haphazardly and so on. The mind will keep going back to anything it sees as “unfinished.” The result is an entirely self-created distraction from work.

Using neuroscience to resolve conflict in your team

Conflict can be productive and helpful; however, when poorly managed, it can become detrimental to a team or business. Gravagna offered three situation-agnostic ways to improve conflict resolution, which are rooted in neuroscience.

1. Practice one-sided conflict resolution.

From the perspective of neuroscience, all conflict is resolved at an individual level. An individual can end the conflict without the other party’s help or participation by recognizing the roots of the conflict within themselves, not the apparent external source. 

As a manger, you might recognize a common issue or situation at the center of a conflict between employees. But in reality, you are dealing with multiple conflicts: one per employee.

“At any given moment, people are [focused on] one of three things: having fun, being productive or protecting themselves,” Gravagna said. “… For example, someone who speaks up in a meeting from a position of self-protection can say something different from what they would say if they were speaking from a position of productivity. Many people confuse self-protection for productivity.” 

Reduce conflict in meetings by asking your team to reflect on why they tend to speak up or stay quiet.

Meetings in which team members seem to be speaking for the sake of saying something to be seen, rather than to make progress, are a familiar occurrence. It's hard to be truly honest with oneself, but once people identify what their motivation is, their internal conflict starts to “melt” and they become less reactive. 

Knowing that conflict resolution is one-sided can encourage both managers and employees to think about why a particular situation might trigger their conflict alert signal and to become more aware of their behavior. It normalizes introspection, increases self-awareness and helps your team gain greater control over their reactions in challenging situations.

To advocate for one-sided conflict resolution, Gravagna suggested encouraging team members to start rewarding themselves when they notice unnecessary self-protecting behavior after it happens. The reward can be anything from a star written on a sticky note to a coffee break. Eventually, they'll start noticing the behavior as it happens and spot it before it occurs. This allows teams to modify their behavior, becoming less reactive and more resilient. 

👉 Creating an environment that fosters self-awareness can help your team members spot their internal conflict(s) and allow them to practice one-sided conflict resolution. 

2. Stop giving uncertainty a negative connotation.

Gravagna once held a joint meeting between the finance team and the business development team in a session with one of her clients. Finance had a rigid framework of how processes should and should not be. Business development did not. 

Since the business development team’s day-to-day involved negotiating and not knowing outcomes right away, they had multiple conceptualizations about the way the world might be. They had trained themselves to be comfortable with the uncertainty of not knowing the eventual outcome. 

Finance, meanwhile, experienced conflict only in simple shifts. They wanted the world to fit into their one conceptualized ideal, and this behavior had always been rewarded.

"When you give someone positive reinforcement for a behavior, they tend to do it more. So if you hire someone to be a structure builder and force people into a structure, that's what they start to value,” Gravagna said. But “these behaviors can be retrained.”

"When you give someone positive reinforcement for a behavior, they tend to do it more. So if you ... force people into a structure, that's what they start to value.”  

 To solve conflicts like the one above, leaders must do a candid self-assessment of their team’s values and needs, then ensure they align with the behaviors they are rewarding. 

Consistently rewarding (giving praise, promotions, recognition) team members who only operate in a very structured way, for example, tells the rest of the team that in order to succeed, they need to be structured. To increase flexibility and better manage conflict, leaders can make a point of highlighting how employees deal with uncertainty and still deliver results. 

👉 Rewarding your team for being okay with the discomfort of uncertainty can help them better deal with change.

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3. Reassess how you give feedback.

Most everyone is capable of making a shift in their thinking, especially when that shift is encouraged. Gravagna said that if one’s approach to giving feedback is neutral, clear and supportive, then the recipient can take it to heart and make necessary changes within six months.

However, it’s unlikely that all managers approach feedback that way. They tend to focus on how an employee is underperforming and what that person is doing wrong. What they don't realize is that this approach puts the team member in emotional pain. Conflict, uncertainty, emotional pain and changing a belief all register in the ACC (the brain’s dissonance detector). The ACC can only satisfy one of these functions at a time. 

Employees can better change their behavior when you call out their positive contributions, according to science.

Thus, calling out an employee’s poor performance makes it challenging for them to change their behavior, as they are being asked to change a belief while the ACC is already occupied with a pain response. 

Fortunately, giving positive feedback is easy to do, so long as leaders keep specific factors in mind. Neutral and constructive feedback focuses on things that can change: Use description vs. judgment and observation vs. inference, for example. Focus on aspects of performance that the employee can actively impact or improve, and make them aware they have what it takes to make positive changes with the skills and assets available to them. A neutral conversation focuses on the desired outcome and how to achieve it without placing blame. It shifts the focus from “This is wrong” to “This is what needs to be done.”

👉 Giving feedback under neutral conditions is most likely to allow for behavior change. 

🌱 The bottom line

Helping employees realize they have greater control over how they manage conflict is powerful, and it’s helpful for managers aiming to keep their teams in working order. 

Give your team the gift of greater self-awareness and help them develop better conflict management skills, one neuroscientific trick at a time.