Leadership expert Dale Carnegie once said: “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.”
There’s a lot of wisdom in those words, and it’s a good reminder that when people work together, conflict is bound to happen. It’s in how we resolve these conflicts that shows our strengths.
To get a better understanding of conflict and how to resolve it, here are some recent scientific studies on the subject.
Where conflict and resolution comes from in our brains
Conflict is natural, and having close relationships with friends, family members, and co-workers makes it inevitable at some point or another. But we tend to experience greater aggression toward people not in our circles, like those working at competing companies or on another team. Researchers at the University of Amsterdam found that the bonding hormone oxytocin causes us to develop a sense of self-sacrifice in order to benefit our own group, leading to aggression against threats. If a competing group is not considered a threat, oxytocin only triggers altruism toward our own group, they said.
But what part of the brain is responsible for resolving conflict? The hippocampus, primarily known for its capacity for memory and learning, according to a team of researchers from Ruhr-Universität Bochum and University Hospital of Bonn. Using an MRI, they found activity in study participants’ hippocampuses when presented with conflict. The researchers said they believe the retrieval of our past resolved conflicts is why the hippocampus is involved.
“Permanently unsolved conflicts can’t be used for learning helpful lessons for the future,” said researcher Nikolai Axmacher. “According to our model, the brain works like a filter. It responds strongly to resolved conflicts, but not to unsolved conflicts or standard situations. However, we have to verify this hypothesis in additional studies.”
Models to resolve conflict
When presented with a conflict, humans tend to follow models in order to solve it, according to Northeastern University researchers. They give the example of a person and their friend eating appetizers at one of their houses. When there is only one left, who should get to eat it?
“Contrasting viewpoints on policy, politics, and social norms might profit from our experience as a ‘team of rivals.’”
“Host-guest norms or ‘paradoxical behavior’ account for the vast majority of our simulated final state solutions — in other words, the host gives the guest the last appetizer,” said co-author Christoph Riedl. “The opposite solution, where the host takes the appetizer for himself, called ownership norms or ‘bourgeois behavior,’ is quite rare. This is especially interesting in the context of human biological behavior because in the animal kingdom, territoriality or ownership norms are ubiquitous.”
The researchers suggest this example is important because it shows that people resolve conflicts by managing their network connections rather than changing their strategy.
But let’s say a conflict breaks out not among friends, but rivals. Five social scientists with conflicting views decided the best course of action would be to force themselves to work together to reach consensus.
“If people are willing to get in a room together and debate their differences, science can be improved,” said co-author Susan Fiske, Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. “We used the behavioral science of multi-party negotiations to resolve our own polarized science, building on the models’ shared insights that we needed to respect each other’s competence and trust each other’s intentions. Contrasting viewpoints on policy, politics, and social norms might profit from our experience as a ‘team of rivals.’”
Looks like President Abraham Lincoln was on to something.
Friendships help reduce conflicts
Resolving conflict is good, but avoiding it altogether may be better. A study by Jenifer Merluzzi, an associate professor of strategic management and public policy at George Washington University, found one way to reduce office conflict between women is to foster friendships among female co-workers.
Merluzzi conducted a survey of 145 management-level employees about workplace dynamics at two large US firms that were primarily male-dominated environments. She found that while men and women were equally likely to cite having a difficult co-worker, women were more likely to cite another woman as a difficult coworker than a man or not cite anyone.
But “this tendency is reduced among women who cite having more women co-workers for social support and friendship at work,” according to a summary of the research. “Knowing that unique gendered network characteristics such as the gender compositions of an employee’s social support at work were associated with negative ties can help organizational leaders anticipate potential trouble spots within their firms where gendered conflict may erupt.”