Where does team conflict come from? One of the answers, of course, seems obvious once you name it: emotion. Aggressive emotion to be precise.

Emotion can overheat – it’s volatile stuff – and it makes much better sense to learn to become aware of its influence, both in us and in our colleagues or bosses. Leadership expert Annie McKee suggests that emotion drives different kinds of conflict at work. She highlights three conflict configurations:

Insecurity. No one comes to work without their personal histories, which means that no one comes to work free of their own idiosyncratic insecurities. When we hide our insecurities, or participate in a culture that encourages such concealment, they influence us even more insidiously. We hide our mistakes, take offence when none was intended, and skulk away from disagreements and sometimes even start fights to distract others.

Desire for power. Whoever we’re with, in whatever context, our relationships are infused with gradients of power. Power can be good, like the power to help someone in need, the power to achieve our goals, the power to exercise control over our lives and actions. However, when people allow the pleasure of power to become overriding, they start to desire having power over others – permanently. They don’t work with others, they’re not interested in shared goals and shared credit: they want to dominate, and that puts everyone else on high alert.

Habitual victimhood. While insecurity has some merit (it can foster awareness of our shortcomings and help us learn), habitual victimhood has none. It can become entrenched in destructive victim-perpetrator pairs and is based on a superficial belief in one’s powerlessness and incapacity. Too often, what’s being avoided is the defensive disconnect with our own aggression: aggression can sometimes be a resource, while sadism (pleasure in inflicting distress or pain on someone else) is always poisonous.

Next time, I’ll explore what can be done about these sources of team conflict.

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