Conflict and the Brain

            As a leader of teams, you’re no stranger to conflict. It pervades all aspects of daily life at work; between your employees, between you and your employees, between you and others, and of course, within yourself. Yes, conflict is a human condition. Would you like to learn how to manage conflict and use it to achieve the best possible outcome – at work and at home? Examining what is occurring in your brain in times of conflict is the key to understanding and resolution. This exercise is also highly recommended by the top cognitive performance coaches. 

So, what is conflict? 

Here, we’ll define conflict as an interpersonal disagreement, when two or more individuals disagree because of a difference in opinion, competition, negative perceptions, poorly defined role expectations, or lack of communication. Organizational conflict is considered to have a negative impact on team functioning, weakening company stability, disrupting the status quo, and impeding productivity. It’s important to learn to resolve conflict lest it interferes with your company’s operations. 

What is the genesis of conflict?  

The good news is that conflict origination is a well-studied area. “Conflicts can result from an incompatibility of expectations, motivation, goals or values between two or more individuals or groups. In many situations, social conflicts reflect a competition for common and limited resources, goods or territories.” Studies tend to frame that conflict as manifested in one of five predisposing phases. Conflict starts with unawareness leading to a sense of awareness where there is first unease. Then believed minimized conflict (denial, placating), and then personalized conflict of emotions and thoughts towards self and others (resentments, accusations, blame). The final two phases are when the conflict is more manifestly expressed; and, how this affects the individual and team dynamics. Conflict arises from social hierarchies in the company or differing values, views and goals.  

What does conflict do to the brain?

Whenever you experience something (good or bad), the positive or negative stimulus is registered in your brain’s thalamus, the brain’s relay station. In simplistic terms, from there, the thalamus then sends signals to the amygdala and the neocortex as well as other areas of the brain. 

The amygdala is the part of your brain that generates emotional responses, and helps form, store, and consolidate memories. When a stimulus is received, the amygdala compares that stimulus to a reservoir of memories to determine whether the new stimulus represents a physical threat to your safety. 

Your neocortex, on the other hand, executes your rational thought processes, decision making, and moderating behaviour, and it is often referred to as the conscious mind. When a stimulus is non-threatening, the neocortex plays a regulatory role, keeping you within a range of standard behaviour. The amygdala determines if there is a threat with a yes or no response. The neocortex works through a complex set of options and considers various outcomes and possibilities.

But when your brain perceives a threat, like when you begin to encounter a conflict with someone else in the office, many neurological processes begin to rev up and overlap creating a whirlwind of thoughts, and thus, emotions. Your amygdala processes the stimulus faster and before the neocortex, so you have an emotional response within milliseconds before your neocortex produces a rational one. To complicate things, while your amygdala is creating an emotional response, it also immediately restricts signals flowing to the neocortex, essentially shutting down your rational thought processes. This happens because you need to be able to act quickly if it were a real physical threat, but often times, what you’re perceiving as a threat in the workplace is not really a threat, but conflict. This prevents rational conversation and may elevate the conflict further. 

Once your brain perceives something as a threat, it triggers an increase of production of adrenaline and cortisol, which are stress hormones that makes your heart rate increase and, your breathing faster. As your body shunts neurotransmission away from your neocortex, your focus is no longer on how to tell the difference between something “good and bad,” making effective decisions, moderating your behaviour, anticipating future consequences, or properly expressing your ideas. This is why people often need some time to cool off if they’ve been in an argument; this happens without your consciousness but can be triggered by memories and your senses.

While this sounds biological and daunting, it’s still not impossible to manage your employees with these facts. Given the right company culture, cognitive performance training and good habits that develop over time, the neocortex can override the initial emotions encountered during conflict.  

The Brains of a Leader

To be an effective business leader is to know how to prevent conflict from being seen as a threat, rather an opportunity to reach a higher level of extraordinary performance. Not being able to recognize this complex system and manage it during the time of conflict can impair your ability to close an important business deal, and can unnecessarily damage an important relationship. Understanding this system works within you as well as your colleagues provides additional insights and management opportunities. While understanding your vulnerabilities to this normal neural pathway will improve communication and promote conflict resolution, which is vital for all leaders.