Navigating the Five Levels of Conflict

A summary of the technique used by Lyssa Adkins

As an Agile Coaches, we need to embrace the conflicts and navigate with them. Conflicts are part of the humanity and can be normal or destructive. These behaviors signal normalcy for any group of people who spend considerable time together and who create a shared history.

Adkins presents 5 levels of conflicts. How it works? You need to guess in which level you/the team/the company are. Once you have this, you need to start working to decrease in one level until the conflict disappears.

What Should You Do About It?

  1. First, do nothing.

So, sit back for a while and witness their moves. See whether they make progress. Even if it’s not perfect or the “complete” job you could do for them, if team members navigate the conflict well enough, leave them alone.

The team’s bumbling is better than your perfect plan. Remember the goal of supporting the team’s self-organization (and reorganization). Your discomfort is a small price to pay.

2. Second, analyze and respond.

  • What is the level of conflict?
  • What are the issues?
  • How would I respond as side A?
  • How would I respond as side B?
  • What resolution options are open?
  • What should I do (if anything)?

When using the analyze-and-respond mode, remember that no one has the whole story. Each person’s perspective is valid and needed. If there are ten team members, you can bet there are at least ten perspectives, each of which is true in the eye of the beholder.

3. Navigate

Level 1: Problem to Solve

Everyday frustrations and aggravations make up this level, and we experience conflicts as they rise and fall and come and go. At this level, people have different opinions, misunderstanding may have happened, conflicting goals or values may exist, and team members likely feel anxious about the conflict in the air.

Level 2: Disagreement

At level 2, self-protection becomes as important as solving the problem. Team members distance themselves from one another to ensure they come out OK in the end or to establish a position for compromise they assume will come. They may talk offline with other team members to test strategies or seek advice and support. At this level, good-natured joking moves toward the half-joking barb. Nastiness gets a sugarcoating but still comes across as bitter. Yet, people aren’t hostile, just wary. Their language reflects this as their words move from the specific to the general. Fortifying their walls, they don’t share all they know about the issues. Facts play second fiddle to interpretations and create confusion about what’s really happening.

Level 3: Contest

At level 3, the aim is to win. People begin to align themselves with one side or the other. Emotions become tools used to “win” supporters for one’s position. Problems and people become synonymous, opening people up to attack. As team members pay attention to building their cases, their language becomes dis-torted. They make overgeneralizations: “He always forgets to check in his code” or “You never listen to what I have to say.” They talk about the other side in presumptions: “I know what they think, but they are ignoring the real issue.”

Level 4: Crusade

Team members believe the people on the ”other side” of the issues will not change. They may believe the only option is to remove the others from the team or get removed from the team themselves. Factions become entrenched and can even solidify into a pseudo-organizational structure within the team. Identifying with a faction can overshadow identifying with the team as a whole so the team’s identity gets trounced. People and positions are seen as one, opening up people to attack for their affiliations rather than their ideas. These attacks come in the form of language rife with ideology and principles, which becomes the focus of conversation, rather than specific issues and facts. The overall attitude is righteous and punitive.

Level 5: World War

“Destroy!” rings out the battle cry at level 5. It’s not enough that one wins; others must lose. “We must make sure this horrible situation does not happen again!” Only one option at level 5 exists: to separate the combatants (aka team members) so that they don’t hurt one another. No constructive outcome can be had.