Navigating the Five Levels of Conflict - The Agile Way

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Navigating the Five Levels of Conflict - The Agile Way

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Working together day after day is an intense human experience, with all the glories and warts that emerge from constant interaction between these astonishing, disappointing, challenging, infuriating, magnificent, normal human beings we call team members. On an agile team, especially, we see this, and in our pursuit of excellence we know that conflicts arise and that we can expect both harmony and disharmony. Navigating conflict is our new mind-set, in which we help teams move from conflict to constructive disagreement as a catapult to high performance.

Editor's Note:  This article has been excerpted from Lyssa Adkin's book, "Coaching Agile Teams" (Addison-Wesley Signature Series (Cohn), July 2010).

The Agile Coach’s Role in Conflict

Coaching teams to navigate conflict may feel unfamiliar or uncomfortable to you. It did for me, even though books, articles, and studies on the subject abound. As a plan-driven project manager, I didn’t have to “go there” in the face of conflict very often because team members joined the team and left the team as we moved from phase to phase. If my feeble attempts to resolve a conflict failed, no big loss. Sooner or later, the team members in conflict would move on to other projects. With agile, however, team members stay together throughout the project. They do not move on, nor does the conflict.

Given this, the agile coach faces conflict squarely, skillfully determines the severity of it, mindfully decides whether to intervene and how, generously teaches teams to navigate it, and courageously refuses to settle for a team that shrinks from greatness by avoiding it.

As their coach, you help teams navigate conflict. You show them a method. You can’t give them a full-color, waterproof chart that marks the shoals and hazards. You can give them something more precious, more powerful. You can give them a guide, a framework, so that they create their own charts, whenever they need to do so.


Five Levels of Conflict

An agile team humming along in the rhythm of steady momentum will display conflict all the time—minor quips at one another, rolling eyeballs, heavy sighs, emotional voices, stony silences, tension in the air. You’ll witness dry wit, teasing, “just joking” comments, or just-short-of-snide remarks, all in the range of normal for an agile team.

These behaviors signal normalcy for any group of people who spend considerable time together and who create a shared history. It happens in neighborhoods, community coffeehouses, churches, and agile teams—especially agile teams—where team members sit arm’s distance apart for hours on end every day while they create products together, all the while responding to the built-in pressure of the timeboxed sprint.

Conflict, ever present, can be normal or destructive, and the two can be hard to tell apart. An author of many books on conflict, Speed Leas offers us agile coaches a framework we can use to determine the seriousness of the conflict (1985). This model, well suited to agile teams, looks at conflict in a deeply human and humane way. As depicted in Figure 9.1, it forms an escalation path of conflict from “Level 1: Problem to Solve” to “Level 5: World War.”

(Click for larger image)

Figure 9.1 Five levels of conflict


Level 1: Problem to Solve

We all know what conflict at level 1 feels like. 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.

When in level 1, the team remains focused on determining what’s awry and how to fix it. Information flows freely, and collaboration is alive. Team members use words that are clear, specific, and factual. The language abides in the here and now, not in talking about the past. Team members check in with one another if they think a miscommunication has just happened. You will probably notice that team members seem optimistic, moving through the conflict. It’s not comfortable, but it’s not emotionally charged, either. Think of level 1 as the level of constructive disagreement that characterizes high-performing teams.


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. A compounding effect occurs as prior conflicts and problems remain unresolved. Often, multiple issues cluster into larger issues or create a “cause.” Factions emerge in this fertile ground from which misunderstandings and power politics arise. In an agile team, this may happen subtly, because a hallmark of working agile is the feeling that we are all in this together. But it does happen.

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.” Views of themselves as benevolent and others as tarnished become magnified: “I am always the one to compromise for the good of the team” or “I have everyone’s best interest at heart” or “They are intentionally ignoring what the customer is really saying.” Discussion becomes either/or and blaming flourishes. In this combative environment, talk of peace may meet resistance. People may not be ready to move beyond blaming.


Level 4: Crusade

At level 4, resolving the situation isn’t good enough. 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.


What Should You Do About It?

The goal of navigating conflict is to de-escalate. Knock it down a notch or two. As the agile coach, the first and most important question to answer is “Do I have to respond?”


First, Do Nothing

Agile teams—even new ones and even broken ones—can often navigate conflict by themselves, even conflict up into the level 3 range. 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. To help you live with the uncomfortable feeling of watching a team’s bumbling attempts to deal with conflict, remember these words from Chris Corrigan in The Tao of Holding Space: “Everything you do for the group is one less thing they know they can do for themselves” (Corrigan 2006).

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.

But what if you’ve decided to intervene? If you feel you have observed long enough (which should feel like a really long time) and decided to intervene, there are a few response modes you can employ: analyze and respond, use structures, and reveal. These come in order from least to most powerful for the goal of fostering self-organization.


Analyze and Respond

This may be the most comfortable response mode an agile coach can use because it feels familiar and at least somewhat analytical. To use analyze and respond, the agile coach considers these questions (Keip 1997):

  • 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.

What is your knee-jerk reaction when conflict arises? Agile coaches must be able to name that reaction and consciously choose it or reject it in service to the team. See Chapter 3, “Master Yourself,” for ways to keep yourself solidly rooted when unexpected things happen with teams. Things like conflict.

Table 9.2 provides a map of successful response modes at each level. Look to this to help answer the question “What resolution options are open?” when addressing conflict in the whole-team setting (Keip 2006).

Table 9.2 Conflict navigation response modes at each level

When the team de-escalates, they get more options for dealing with the conflict as the tools from the next level down become available to them.

The analyze-and-respond mode for navigating conflict may feel comfort-able to you—an easy shoe to slip on. If that’s the case and if it seems the best choice for your current level of skill and confidence, use it. However, you should know that it is the weakest response mode for building high-performance teams because it puts the coach in the driver’s seat. It also relies completely on analytical thinking, which is just one small way to think about conflict. So, as you feel ready, try the next two response modes.



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