When we work alone, there is no conflict. We just do what we think we should be doing. But what happens when we work with other people? Everyone has different ideas about what is going on, how to interpret things, what is the right thing to do, etc. This leads to tensions in the system. The tension between two people’s ideas creates conflict.

Most people agree that conflict that takes the form of yelling, arguing, or passive-aggressive behaviour is bad for organizational health. These behaviours drop the level of psychological safety and impair brain function. Is there such a thing as productive conflict, though? There is a popular idea that conflict can be a healthy part of organizational functioning.

HR Advisor offers a popular definition of productive conflict:

Productive conflict is conflict that produces the results you want—better, more informed decisions for the company—without creating negative feelings for those involved… The debate can be lively and impassioned, but it remains focused on the issue that needs to be discussed.

We believe this definition, and the popular idea of productive conflict, misses the point in a big way. In fact, this idea can be dangerous to the healthy functioning of an organization. In this article, we’ll explore why this is and what to do instead.

Conflict Is Not Healthy

Let’s begin with the word “Conflict.” The spectrum of different perspectives includes many possibilities other than just conflict:

  1. Different assumptions
  2. Different ideas
  3. Disagreement
  4. Conflict

Conflict is the most intense, aggressive way to understand different perspectives. There is no way for it to be safe or to “avoid negative feelings.”

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The view we have at SHIFT314 is that conflict is not actually useful. Let’s use the example of two different people: they have different ideas, and they are both entrenched in their way of thinking. They are attached and advocate that their idea is the right one. When two people advocate that their idea is right, conflict will arise.

The root of the problem is egoic identification and attachment with our own ideas. Most efforts at “healthy conflict” attempt to address this at a surface level. In contrast, the core of the challenge is the emotional systems activation. In this post we give you the step by step to address the root cause of conflict.

Three Steps to Resolve Tensions Without Conflict

#1 Willingness to Understand

When two people have different ideas yet also a willingness to understand the other person, different perspectives can be resolved naturally and easily. The basic requirements are a respect for the other person, the willingness to listen, and the ability to distance oneself from our own perspective. We need to create a space to really understand the other person’s idea.

When these conditions are there, it creates a space for us to be able to listen to each other. Through that process, we can understand what could be right or wrong. This is a lot harder than it looks. The following two steps will help this to actually work.

#2 Willingness to Unlearn

In order for anyone to really listen to somebody else’s ideas, there needs to be a willingness to unlearn and to let go of your belief on the subject. This means being willing to consider the possibility that you could be wrong. Consider the possibility that the other person could be right. From that space, listening becomes possible.

In Zen Buddhism, they call this beginner’s mind. The technical term for this is unlearning: the willingness to unlearn to let go of my existing beliefs to discover something else that might be more successful.

#3 Letting Go of Agenda

The challenge that people often face with creating a space to let go of their idea is that they have a strong desire for their idea to be successful. The ego, very naturally, wants to defend its ideas so that our own sense of self-worth is propped up.

When we believe that our idea is the one that will allow the solution to be successful, we get attached to it. We start to create a push for our result. When we have the strong belief that our idea is the correct idea, it is difficult for us to let go and create a space for unlearning to happen.

It is very important for leaders to be able to start to see what their agenda is. What beliefs are behind their idea? What are the things connected to it that are fueling it and giving it the tightness that is leading to conflict?

Of course the energy behind the agenda is almost always an emotional charge that has nothing to do with the situation at hand. To understand more about our emotions we invite you to check out our book Emotional Science.

It’s About a Shift in Consciousness

What we are describing here is an evolved state of functioning for a human being. It is not just about learning skills or techniques. It is actually about a shift to a more evolved level of consciousness. One where we operate at a high enough level of psychological safety there is no longer a problem for people to have different viewpoints and perspectives.

The creation of a high-performance organization depends on the ability of individuals to work through tensions between different ideas and belief systems. Then, the people in the organization can work to figure out which path will lead to the greatest success. What ideas, models and beliefs will create the success for which people have a shared hope?

The path for those who have an interest in showing up this way is through Evolutionary Leadership. This is the choice to evolve oneself and develop into a more evolved state of being.

Terms such as servant leadership or transformational leadership talk about how we want to show up at the end – the outcome. Evolutionary Leadership is what we focus on now in order to create the more successful outcome. When we say leadership, we are not just talking about people who hold positions of power. High-performance organizations happen when we have leaders at all levels.


Resolving tensions without conflict is about everyone choosing a path of evolution and understanding. It is also about working through shortcomings of the ego to allow us to engage in problem resolution instead of conflict.

For many, productive conflict is a small improvement over no conflict. The purpose of this article is to help people understand that it is just a stepping stone. It is not the final step or a series of steps that will lead to high organization performance. The highest levels of success will come from evolved staff that are able to work through differing ideas and perspectives for the good of the organization.

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