The Drain and Gain of Conflict - Headington Institute Skip to content

The Drain and Gain of Conflict

Alicia Jones, M.A.
Director of Operations, Headington Institute, 2016.


Every team, every manager, every relationship has to go through the testing ground of conflict at some point. But as with many aspects of life, it’s not the conflict itself that shows what we’re made of, but how it’s managed. High functioning teams are those that navigate conflict well, neither suppressing it nor letting it fester. These teams are able to capitalize off of interpersonal differences, transforming them into catalysts for growth, innovation, and a refined sense of mission.

In spite of all these positives, conflict, particularly between teammates, can be one of the greatest sources of burnout. Several studies of humanitarians have shown conflicts within a team or between individuals and management have a greater stress-impact on individuals than the work itself. Depending on your personality type, conflict may drain you more deeply than other sources of stress. If that’s true of you, it’s important to recognize it. You will likely need some conscientious strategies for reducing its impact.

On a team, some will naturally see moments of conflict as opportunities to refine, strengthen communication, or to seize an opportunity for positive change. Others, based on their natural temperament, will see conflict as the sign of something wrong – someone has erred, or someone is viewing things incorrectly. They may see relationship damage as irreparable and think, “That turned out badly; maybe I should avoid this person in the future.”

Our perceptions about conflict, therefore, have a big impact on how we engage with others and what we perceive the outcome will be (win, lose, collaborate, compromise, or walk away). When this happens, it’s easy to become entrenched in our perception. We start defending against an outcome we fear will come to pass, rather than listening in the moment. Sometimes the only way forward is to ask these questions directly, “What is it you fear will happen?” “What important piece do you want to make sure I understand?” As with other aspects of life, our expectations of the future so often influence how we feel in the present. People need to know you care about how decisions will impact others, even if the decision itself is unavoidable.

Years ago, a colleague told me that repaired relationships are stronger than relationships in which there has been no conflict at all. Knowing this has helped me make the shift from viewing conflict as negative to viewing conflict as an opportunity to strengthen ties. There is something about the repair process that, when done well, forges a deeper understanding and trust. It’s a skill worth addressing, particularly if we’re in management. We won’t do it well unless we’re able in the moment to self-reflect on what’s eating at us, question how we’re being swayed in our perceptions of others or the future, and enter into discussions, expecting that repair and good outcomes are possible.

Moments of conflict are very often our growing edge – calling out of us strength, purpose, and authenticity, and propelling us forward toward something important – but only if we understand them well.


Share this post

Join our mission to support staff working in high-stress environments.