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Addressing The Elephant: And Why Most Conflicts In Teams Are Invisible

July 22, 2019

Conflicts are fascinating. Now, this may be the organisational psychologist in me talking, or the facilitator who senses them in the groups I work with. But the other part of me dreads them. They scare me. They make me anxious. And when I’m engaged in a conflict, my emotions can get the better of me and make me do and say things I later regret.

One simple truth is that conflict is a natural part of working with other people. Another is that our understanding of what ‘conflict’ is, and when we are in it, is very limited — making it hard to effectively deal with them.

“Our understanding of what ‘conflict’ is, and when we are in it, is very limited — making it hard to effectively deal with them”

If you ask someone what “conflict” is, they usually explain it in terms of a verbal dispute, raised voices, slamming doors and angry faces. But most of our conflicts are far less visible. They may not be explicitly expressed by those experiencing it, but they do influence the dynamics of a group. And either the whole group is aware of this, or some are. This is the proverbial ‘Elephant In The Room’. And when you don’t see them, or don’t talk about them, it limits your ability as a team to grow and learn from it. It also means that valuable energy is siphoned into a conflict, instead of working together.

Often, we think conflict means “raised voices” and “angry faces”. But conflict is usually far less visible, though very present. Illustration by Thea Schukken.
Often, we think conflict means “raised voices” and “angry faces”. But conflict is usually far less visible, though very present. Illustration by Thea Schukken.

Types Of Elephants

Last week, we were part of a call with Julie HuffakerKaren DawsonBarry Overeem, and Daniel Steinhöfer. I met Julie and Karen in Seattle during the Liberating Structures Global Gathering. There, they thoroughly impressed me with their experience in navigating conflicts in teams. So we decided to organize a workshop (more below). While preparing for the workshop, we worked together to identify ‘archetypes’ of conflicts. The following absolutely non-complete, non-authoritative list emerged:

  • A ‘blame game’ where one person or group feels they are unsuccessful because they are not getting what they need from others; while others, in turn, believe the person or group is not succeeding because of a lack of commitment or skill;
  • A group or person claims ‘most of the air time’ by going on and on about something they think or feel, while others remain silent or don’t share what they really think or feel. This could be an over-present Scrum Master, a dominant Product Owner or a strongly opinionated developer;
  • Acts of ‘sabotage’, where one person or group actively or passively obstructs another person or group from achieving their goal, for example by not showing up for a Daily Scrum, by skipping other Scrum Events or purposefully working on other projects;
  • ‘Stepping on each other’s toes due to a lack of clarity in how roles and responsibilities are distributed or because people are “not stepping up” according to some, and the resulting frustration from that. This could be a Product Owner who feels that the Development Team is making decisions about the product they feel they should be making or a developer who started work on a PBI that another developer wanted to work on;
  • There is the perception that a person or a group is ‘not taking responsibility’ for a decision or is ‘free-riding’ on the success of others;
  • Because the system can’t see itself, everyone feels that they are ‘contributing a bigger share’ or working harder than the others. It is not uncommon for everyone in a Development Team to feel they are doing more than their fair share, for example;
  • People or groups feel that others are ‘not fully honest’ about their motives;
  • People or groups ‘bask in the light’ of someone they hold in high esteem, like a CEO or a Product Owner, while others feel neglected, unheard or unseen by this person;
  • People or groups have different ideas on how to move forward, while also being frustrated by the inability of others to see their point of view (a task conflict);

One common theme is that many conflicts are essentially about our relative status in a group. Specifically, when we feel our status is lowered because others don’t value us or our contributions. When there is disharmony in the social hierarchy, this causes strong emotional responses — like frustration, anger, fear, shame, sadness or anxiety — in those experiencing the disharmony. Its a good example of how our primate brains evolved to value social hierarchies and our position in them.

Another characteristic is that conflicts are often unilateral, in that they are experienced by one party but not the others. This also depends on our personal beliefs; what one person perceives as an attack on personal status may be perceived by another as a ‘good and productive debate’.

What happens when there are Elephants …

A lot of research has gone into exploring how groups can deal with conflicts productively. In a large meta-analysis of 30 scientific studies that explored the effects of task- and relational conflict in teams, De Dreu & Weingart (2003) found that conflict has a strong (negative) impact on team performance and work satisfaction. Another finding was that the impact increases as the work becomes more complex. The study concluded that the common belief that ‘conflict is good for teams’ is not supported by data. The authors note that although a little conflict can be productive, they tend to quickly escalate and overload our ability to work together productively.

Surfacing The Elephant

With most conflicts living below the surface, and having a significant impact on our effectiveness, we have to develop the skills and understanding on how to surface, address and navigate them. It also requires that we change beliefs we may have about conflict:

  • Most conflicts, especially those living below the surface, can’t be solved or resolved in the sense of arriving at a place where everyone involved is 100% happy and comfortable with the outcome. Therefore, a first step in learning to navigate conflict productively is to let go of the belief that all conflicts can and should be (re)solved. This is also why we emphasize that conflicts can be navigated, not necessarily resolved;
  • Conflict is a natural part of human collaboration. It happens to everyone, no matter how skilled you are, how non-violent your communication is and how considerate you are of others. Conflict in itself is not bad or something that should be avoided. In fact, conflict is a great source of learning and growth, provided we learn how to navigate it productively and don't let it escalate;
  • Conflicts don’t disappear when we choose to ignore or avoid them.Overwhelmingly, research shows that open-minded conversation is the best way forward. And this is hard. It requires that we learn how to develop and express our ideas and emotions, that we understand and empathize with other views, that we integrate and create new ideas together and that we have to agree to implement relevant solutions (Johnson et. al. 2014);
  • Although not all conflicts can be truly solved in the sense of finding a solution, often the act of talking about it openly and showing the effect it has on each of us is an important step forward. This will be messy and difficult no matter how skilled you are. And that’s fine;

Although surfacing elephants can be messy, difficult work, it rewards Scrum Teams with growth and learning when done productively. Bringing an elephant to the surface also frees up significant psychological resources; instead of complaining about their teammates at the dinner table, team members can redirect that energy into solving problems, coming up with new ideas, and rejuvenating outside of work. Scrum Teams that learn how to surface elephants can dance with conflict instead of running away from it.

Join our workshop

Eager to know more about conflict? And how to help yourself and your Scrum Team navigate it more productively by ‘Addressing the Elephant’? We’re hosting a 1-day workshop in Amsterdam on November 22 that is all about helping you. We will be making extensive use of Liberating Structures to allow you to share experiences and learn from others, while also building effective and practical strategies to navigate conflict together. Sign up here.

Illustration by Thea Schukken
Illustration by Thea Schukken


De Dreu, C.K.W. & L.R. Weingart. 2003. Task versus relationship conflict, team performance, and team member satisfaction: A meta-analysisJournal of Applied Psychology, 88(4) 741–749

Johnson D.W., Johnson R.T., Tjosvold D. 2014. Constructive controversy: the value of intellectual opposition. In Deutsch et al., The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. pp. 76–103

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