Disagreement and conflict – an overlooked aspect in Agile Ways of Working

As an agile coach with a firm background in communication sciences, I see agile as an interaction concept. Agile rituals and events help teams to interact with each other and their clients in a way they get valuable results in a fast way. In my coaching work, I see a lot of positive interactions in teams working agile. People are open to exploring and learning from each other. I also notice a tendency to shy away from more difficult interactions, especially from disagreement and conflict.

Little disagreements during our workday

I understand that there is a lot holding us back from exposing ourselves to these awkward and difficult interactions. But there is a lot to be gained if you do; better relationships and in the end more trust. As most people in the workplace nowadays, our days are full of interactions around complexity, capacity, and scarcity. It is therefore very likely you have a lot of little disagreements during your workday and some of them might even end up in conflicts. Knowing more about disagreement and conflict can be a great help in handling these interactions.

Content versus emotions

What is the difference between disagreement and conflict? When we talk about disagreement, we argue about the content. Most people in the workplace take a rational approach. Some people though, especially very skillful and engaged people can get a bit emotional about the content as well. So as there can be no clean-cut between emotion and rationality, the main approach of most people while disagreeing stays rational.

A conflict is about content and on top of that values. And when values enter the interaction, emotions are present. We care for our values and are very ready to live by them and defend them when necessary.

Escalation stairs

As you see in the definitions above, there is an increasing intensity as you go from a disagreement into a conflict. It gets more personal. And that is why most conflicts tend to escalate very quickly. Every action justifies a reaction. Friedrich Glasl, an authority on conflict, sketched the way most conflicts naturally tend to catch fire into a model: the escalation stairs. Very useful to analyze conflict situations.

The relation

In the first three steps of escalation, the disagreement phase, both parties can work out something together that is okay for both. There are possibilities to create a win-win situation. In the next phase, a conflict arises and it is getting personal as the relationship comes into play. A win-lose situation is created, where either one of the parties not only hopes to win but also hopes that the other one loses, preferably in a very visible way for the people surrounding the conflict. During the red phase, there is no positive goal anymore, the objective is to destroy the other. A lose-lose situation is created. It gets ugly, people surrounding the conflict tend to look away as it can’t get solved anymore.

The brain gets hijacked

In a conflict, the fastest way to analyze where you are on the escalation stairs is asking yourself the question: do I have a conflict or does the conflict have me? From step 4 or 5 the conflict starts having you. You think about it a lot, you might lose sleep over it… And that is actually visible in the brain. As you move up the escalation stairs, significant parts of your brain get hijacked.

Navigate with confidence

Knowing that this will happen and having tools for yourself to intervene in this process, will give you a great sense of self-efficacy. It will make you less anxious. Instead of shying away from the awkwardness of these difficult interactions, you will be navigating conflict with confidence and use it to build stronger connections with the people surrounding you in day-to-day life.

Want to know more about disagreement and conflict in Agile Ways of Working and especially how to prevent brain hijack? Invite me for an introduction to raise awareness on these topics in your team(s). Also relevant international Agile conferences can invite me as a speaker on these topics.

Some feedback from the Eurostar 2021 Conference:

“Gave great insight of the way our brain is working. Very useful. Should have known that years ago.”
“Excellent and relevant talk. Many takeaways for me. Her answers to the questions were great too.”
“Nice! New insights and I want to hear more!”

The talk was rated as Excellent by participants with an 8.5 score on a 10-point scale.