The Conflict Escalation Ladder

by | Jan 26, 2023

Disagreements are not conflicts. Disagreements are a healthy part of a collaborative dynamic, but conflicts are not. The critical outcome is that people strengthen their relationships as they work through disagreements, whereas the result of the conflict is that people break contact and the relationship sours. When disagreements escalate into full-blown disputes, the management needs to take accountability for the situation because they are responsible for preventing problems from worsening.

Disagreements become a problem when it spirals out of control. The Danish center for conflict resolution describes the ladder of conflict escalation and defines it:

“Conflicts are disagreements that lead to tension within, and between, people.”

The conflict escalation ladder provides a practical model of how disagreements can escalate into conflicts. I will share insights from my experience on agile teams and how leadership actions can build team resilience. 

Boundaries

The notion of boundaries is essential to understand before we dive deeper into the Conflict Escalation Ladder. 

A boundary or a threshold, when crossed, leads into another domain. Whenever a threshold is crossed, the dynamics of the systems at play change because the landscape is now different. Boundaries are transition lines.

In workplace situations, when someone crosses a professional or personal boundary, the other party reacts and escalates. Leadership action involves recognizing the signs of a conflict brewing and taking corrective steps before the situation worsens.

When disagreements surface, the climate that surrounds the situation matters. And the conflict escalation ladder guides how to respond to disputes in different contexts.

Teamwork and agility

Agile teams are collaborative by nature. Although the Conflict escalation ladder model applies to various situations, we will focus on teamwork and agility. You will be able to extend your conceptual understanding beyond agile teams and understand how to lead in other contexts.

Let’s review the different stages of how conflict escalates and what leadership action looks like at the various stages. We will highlight specific leadership actions as Do’s and Don’ts; let’s dive in. 

Land of Growth

Disagreements reveal opportunities to create Win-Win solutions for the shared problem.

People disagree on issues and ideas in the land of growth but do not take differences personally. This is a fertile space for teams to grow. Teamwork is about working through interpersonal issues so you can solve more worthy challenges as a collective. 

Disagreement with a fellow team member is normal and comes with the territory. Agile teams aim to create working software together, which requires cross-functional collaboration. It is healthy to have disagreements within the team. You should expect that when work is getting done, there will also be friction. The ability of the team members to productively dissipate the excess heat of solving problems together depends on the quality of team collaboration and leadership actions.

Level 1 – Disagreements 

At this level, the disagreement is about the issue at hand. Disagreements at this level are healthy, sometimes invigorating, to stimulate new insights. These disagreements are harmless because it is not about either party’s ego or insecurities. Both parties remain good friends or colleagues and continue to maintain contact and invest in finding solutions for the issue.

In the land of growth, both parties play fairly. They engage in expressing their viewpoints because they trust each other. They expect each other to be vested in solving the problem together, not one-upmanship.

Level 2 – Debates: Competing to win

Conditions for dialogue can erode when either or both parties are only partly committed to solving the issue. Emotionally they also need to “win.” This is confusing for both parties because they are not wholly sure of their own needs. 

Parties may show inconsistent preference bias that shifts between

A. Their desire to solve the problem while upholding the values of the organization, and

B. Their desire to prove themselves or their viewpoint as “right” and the others as “wrong.”

These situations can occur because the other party, unbeknownst to them, may have crossed a personal or professional boundary. As a standalone incident, it may not be much, but when teams do not retrospect, these little misgivings can accumulate and fester over time.

People can feel the tension but can’t put their finger on the challenge. 

Signs that conditions for dialogue are eroding:

  • Parties engage in extended verbal/written back and forth
  • Parties express strongly critical attack on one viewpoint
  • Others try to bring levity or change topics – “did you watch the game last night?”

Level 3: Actions, not words

The situation can escalate when one of the parties forces a solution without consulting with the other party. The objective now is to win and not to find a consensus solution to the problem. The parties view each other as competitors, and the important goal is blocking the other while implementing their solution.

Both parties are still interested in solving the problem but see no further use for conversations. Their belief in their solution is so strong that they cannot see merit in the other party’s solution to the same problem.

Do’s

As a team

(1) Retrospectives

“At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.” – Agile Manifesto Principle.

Utilize retrospectives to surface tension and dissipate potential ill will that may have built up during the iteration. An expertly facilitated retrospective can help team members heal their differences, diffuse tensions, and energize them to continue maintaining collaborative contact.

For example, an agile team was struggling with constant stakeholder interruptions. So they invited the team and stakeholders to retrospect on their intake process. The facilitator expertly used the “Mad, Sad, Glad” technique to surface emotions from everyone involved. As she led the group through the retrospective activity, people began to realize the unintentional impact of their behaviors. The stakeholders agreed on a weekday to bring all their requests for refinement so the developers can ask questions or request additional information before they work on that item. This was a Win-Win resolution because the developers could do focused work, and the stakeholders were no longer concerned that hallway conversations from other stakeholders could trump agreed-upon priorities.

Groups that do not retrospect regularly eventually accumulate so many little hurts that they perform like an athlete who regularly does not have a good night’s sleep. The fatigue builds up slowly at first and eventually leads to injury.

(2) Sharing Values activity: Reconnect on shared values for your team. Sharing Values is a team-building activity in that you can reestablish ground rules for engagement within your team.

As a leader

(1) If you are one of the parties caught up in a heated debate, then take a break. You do not have to react to your emotional impulse. Let it go now and reach out to the other party to understand their perspective.

(2) If you are a team member or the manager who recognizes the early signs of disagreements getting personal, then look to build bridges between the parties. Acts of diplomacy will prevent the situation from worsening and recreate conditions for dialogue. You still have sufficient room to maneuver a win-win resolution.

(3) Even when disagreements escalate to level 3, remember that both parties are at least partially interested in solving the problem. So focus on solving the problem and seeking consensus where both parties can live with and support the solution in the future.

(4) Encourage Experimentation

Set up an experiment to evaluate alternatives offered by both parties. Maintain your neutrality and focus on designing a fair investigation.

In one of my teams, where we were developing a system to ingest XML data, we were caught up in DOM vs. SAX parser debate. We set up an experiment to evaluate the performance of both parsers for our needs and, based on the result from the experiment spike, selected the parser through team consensus.

Designing and implementing the experiment was important for team health. It reminded us of the issue, gave us tangible, testable actions to validate our preferences, and restored the spirit of learning by doing.

Don’t’s

As a leader

Debates shift the focus from the problem to the person. When people debate from a fixed viewpoint, they become their position. Leaders encourage growth mindsets, not fixed positions. Some managers mistakenly believe that the best ideas emerge from debates, but they fail to understand that debates set the stage for Win-Lose outcomes.

Don’t use people as competitors in your arena; instead, focus their energies on the enemy that is out there. You want your team to solve this problem and retain the capacity for dialogue for challenges ahead. And if they keep scoring brownie points for you, you will lose the talents of both parties in the long run.

As a team member

Don’t take sides. When disagreements escalate to excluding some team members from the decisions, you have to stand up for those whose voices are not heard. It may seem comfortable to follow along with the first mover, but for reasons that will become apparent later, your inaction sets the stage for disagreements to blow up into conflicts.

Land of blame

Finding faults substitutes for solving the shared problem, and the Win-Lose dynamic takes hold.

A critical transition point is a border between healthy disagreements and descent into the blame game. Once it is crossed, it is challenging to restore collaborative balance because there is a reluctance to cooperate and tensions within the team become tangible. 

Level 4: Personification

If one gets carried away, then unresolved disagreements get personified.

“It is your fault.” 

This is when the focus shifts from the issue to the person’s lack and faults. The original issue is no longer this issue; it has moved to the person being the issue.

Jay: “did you check in the unit test.”

Veeru: “Not yet”

Jay: “You never check in your code on time.” 

Level 5: The Problem Expands

Issues accumulate, and past slights are remembered. The problem is forgotten, and old remembrances are brought into conflict. Parties selectively remember past situations to reinforce their slide into believing that the other party is always at fault and not how they interact.

Jay: “did you check in the unit test.”

Veeru: “Not yet”

Jay: “You never check in your code on time.” 

Veeru: “Like you know what you are doing. You messed up the last code merge.”

Jay: “I did not. I was working on it, and you decided to package it without even talking to me.”

Veeru: “Like you ever respond to my emails.”

The problem expands because the parties are building a selective narrative where they are victims of the other’s actions. And everything about them is now problematic. At this stage, the parties recall unrelated aspects, like how the other talks or dresses, to make character judgments about the other person.

Jay: “You are just a rabble-rouser.”

Veeru: “If you cared to do your work properly, then I would not have to remind you to do your job.”

Blanket statements like these are aimed at discrediting the other party. Parties engaging in the blame game put the other’s competence into question. Depending on an individual’s style, it could be a subtle jab or a direct challenge to the other party’s credibility as a professional. At this stage, people are not sure if their behavior is acceptable, so they test behavioral norms to check what they can get away with

“I was only questioning Marie’s decisions. Are we not even allowed to discuss?”

Or enlist supporters that condone their stance.

“Steve, tell Marie how wrong she is”

Everyone does not handle blame the same way. Some disengage in the hope that the other party will eventually let go, or they may engage in retaliatory jabs. On the surface, at first, it may look like friendly back and forth, but in the team, people know that the parties do not get along.

Do’s

(1) Impact feedback

“See something, say something.”

This does not mean you must challenge the aggressor in front of everybody. Meet with them one-on-one and allow them to reflect on their behavior and its impact on you.

Impact feedback is about taking ownership of your feelings and describing a specific situation and its impact on you. You give feedback from your perspective by

  1. Describing the situation from your point of view (your observation, not judgment)
  2. The impact that it has on you (consequences, feelings)
  3. What you would like to be different (need)

For example, Steve might say

“When you asked for my opinion in the meeting, I felt uncomfortable picking sides because I value your and Marie’s insights. I need you to respect Marie’s contributions because when you put her on the spot, it affects my ability to focus on the design problem. Instead, I’m worried you two will argue and derail the meeting again!”

Often people don’t realize when they are sliding into the blame zone. Because they may not be aware of their actions or find them justified. Providing impact feedback helps them see how their behavior affects you and what you need from them.

(2) Rehearse with me

Sometimes people find it difficult to break away from mental patterns. Even when they realize it is not the other person’s fault, they communicate in a way that feels like they are blaming the other party. When they know they have to grow their communication capability, I recommend rehearsals where they practice expressing themselves. You help them reflect on the situation and process it differently by assisting them in separating the issue from the person.

It takes practice to develop effective communication skills. Your reflections can help them get objective feedback on how they might get perceived and how to avoid unconsciously sliding into the blame zone.

Don’ts

(1) Burry your head in the sand

If the situation is unchecked, and no one consults with parties in conflict, it can result in both parties cutting off direct communication. Leaders must take action to keep communication channels open between the affected parties.

Land of factions

Dialogue is no longer possible. The lose-lose dynamic unfolds.

A critical boundary is crossed when direct contact between parties is severed. They only communicate as strictly necessary or via intermediaries. They indirectly learn about each other’s actions, and it isn’t easy to reconcile differences without contact.

The situation has now escalated where. They believe that the other personifies the problem. 

Level 6: Enemy Images

Either party can start festering in past slights and build an enemy image that accumulates everything disagreeable about another party in a persona. This is often accompanied by severing contact and dialogue with the other party, where the internal process of building the ‘enemy image’ is consuming and finding any redeeming qualities in the other party becomes difficult.

Level 7: Seeking Alliances 

The affected party starts seeking validation from friends and colleagues to reinforce their belief about an ‘Enemy Image’ building within them. Gossip starts and cliques can also get formed as the polarization process begins to take root.

Jay: “Can you believe it!”

Amanda: “What, is this about Veeru?”

Jay: ”He is so careless about this release.”

Amanda: “Yes, his code is never commented properly.”

Jay: “And that accent of his, how can anyone understand what he is saying”

Level 8: Open Hostility

People must take sides openly and pick the person they are aligned with. Friends feel obliged to support their friend or colleague, whereas bystanders avoid interaction with team members for fear of further escalating the situation. Outsiders interacting with the team are forewarned about sensitivities within the group and asked to prevent problems involving both affected parties. So much has been vested by parties in building and promoting an ‘enemy image’ it is tough for parties to reconcile differences.

Veeru: “I’m not attending this meeting if Jay is going to be there.”

Ken: “But we need both of you in the meeting.”

Veeru: “Whose side are you on?”

Level 9: Separation

Co-existence is no longer possible. When issues get to open hostility, there is no telling what is likely to happen – mean words, physical violence, etc. There is not enough space to handle the drama of parties involved in the conflict for this long. The team has to be disbanded, or one/both parties are asked to leave the group.

Do’s

When the conflict escalates this far, the management has to take responsibility for worsening the situation. People in the land of factions and tribes recognize they are caught up in an untenable dynamic and actively look for alternate places of work. The situation needs to be corrected quickly and may involve letting go of conflicting parties.

Don’ts

Stay classy, and don’t gossip about other persons’ interpersonal challenges. Gossip only entrenches the parties more firmly into their fixed stances because they may feel they now have a reputation to maintain.

On Scale

Conflict in the land of factions has collateral damage. When enemy images are reinforced, and people have to pick sides, remaining neutral may not be feasible. Being a member of a tribe offers the security of ‘being in the know’ because some information is shared only within closed circles, which further entrenches the dysfunctional dynamic. 

We see this at scale when the ‘Business,’ ‘IT,’ and the ‘PMO’ are separate factions. In this environment, escalations and gossip are the norms, and the collective focus is no longer on solving the customer’s problem but on protecting their fiefdom. A characteristic is that the formal leaders (Directors & VP) rarely engage in direct problem-solving sessions. Instead, communication occurs via subordinates who relay messages back and forth.  A truce is temporarily maintained by the occasional sacrifice of throwing someone under the bus. 

The leaders of the factions are so deeply vested in protecting their fiefdom that the only way is to rebuild with new leadership at the top. C-level courage is needed to look beyond the fiscal year objectives and rebuild for the long term with new leaders who do not share a history of ill will.

On a much smaller scale, a couple may experience escalations in the ladder and eventually separate.

A stitch in time, saves nine

Disagreements play out differently in different contexts. 

In the Land of Growth, participants view disagreements as differences in perspective and believe that both parties can grow through dialogue that enhances understanding. In the Land of Blame, the parties have lost faith in the dialogue process to build consensus. Instead, they view the other party as the problem. In the Land of factions, sub-groups have formed that become insular and stop engaging in any meaningful dialogue with anyone who is not “in” their group.

Calm waters run deep. Artificial harmony or the culture of being “nice” may give a false impression that all is well. This is because the speed of progression through the conflict escalation ladder can vary.  Situations can unexpectedly flare up that warrant exclusion of the ‘trouble makers’ to return to a superficial truce that is temporarily less chaotic.

Acts of leadership are needed to surface disagreements and process the differences. Paying attention to how disagreements get treated will clue you into the context of your group. 

People want to do good work and feel valued for their contributions. I have witnessed incredible acts of understanding and support in my workings with agile teams. The ability to maintain dialogue where people can focus on the issue, share their views, and be open to others’ input is a critical factor in the success of agile teams.

If you are caught up in a problematic dynamic in your agile team, reflect on the stages of the conflict escalation ladder. Use the do’s and don’ts to help de-escalate the situation and create conditions for dialogue.  

With the conflict escalation ladder, I want to remind you that collaborative teamwork takes many little acts of leadership. The key to happy and successful agile teams is appreciating each other and having fun solving challenging problems.

A stitch in time saves nine. I encourage you to hold effective retrospectives. It takes only a few hours a month and builds your team’s resilience to overcome future challenges.

Download your copy of the Conflict Escalation ladder infographic.

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1 Comment

  1. Anonymous

    good

    Reply

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