Conflict is here to stay

Paul is off to Atlanta, GA for the global Association for Talent Development Conference ( Here's a short article that's gone to all 10,000 attendees.

Conflict - for many, it’s a scary word, but for the best leaders, athletes and organisations, conflict is energy conveying a simple message: there is an opportunity to learn and improve.

This understanding underpins Next Element’s Leading Out Of Drama framework, alongside the skills required to navigate conflict without compromising dignity or accountability. We call this Compassionate Accountability.

The sources of conflict are many: change, the gaps between reality and expectation, and the presentation of those things that challenge each of us personally - whether in communication, environment or motivation.

For many ATD attendees, this understanding is part and parcel of our professions. We diagnose, train skills, design strategy, and on good days we get to contribute to the big wins - like the Tour and World Championship performances I was lucky enough to be a small part of during my career in sport.

I’ve recently been working on an organisational learning and development program, where my research took me back to Danny Kahneman’s superb, Nobel prize winning research - captured best in 2011’s Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman’s research demonstrates how we all are subject to cognitive biasses and shortcuts that lead to predictable, often significant errors. 

Much of Kahneman’s research deals with statistical processing errors, but what stood out to me this time around was how consistently Kahneman refers to another predictable result of humans operating under cognitive load: conflict

Research shows that cognitively exhausted (the technical term is ‘ego depleted’) individuals exhibit:

  •  decreased discipline
  •  increased impulsivity
  •  heightened aggression in response to provocation, and
  •  impaired cognitive performance in logical decision making tasks

These costs cannot be overstated: strategic planning and implementation is compromised, customer relationships ruined and trust throughout organisations destroyed. In high risk industries, passengers and patients die. Conflict seems to cause even more damage than cognitive biasses and shortcuts.

So, knowledge is useful, but is a terrible predictor of behaviour. What can we do to improve?

There are a range of approaches focussing on the gaps that occur when individuals and teams are operating under stress and load. Many work to correct error with specialist technical interventions: checklists, identifying assumptions and biasses, and modelling outcomes. 

Other, strength based approaches, provide guidance as to personnel suited to tasks while often failing to recognise that technical aptitude will in some circumstances exacerbate the risk factors we seek to correct for.

Research from high risk industries show that each of these types of interventions is valuable, but more often than not, ego depleted individuals and teams cease to use them altogether.

So, what about an over-arching, scaleable, skills based framework? A framework allowing teams and individuals to identify and exploit conflict to better use technical solutions, improve resilience, and build strong, empathetic and accountable relationships in each interaction?  

If the value of an approach that goes beyond high performance and technical solutions, all the way to psychological safety and high performing relationships sounds like something you’d like discuss more, drop by and see me and the Next Element team at ATD.




Paul Larkin