Created by Susanne Stock

#favouritemodels No. 26 - A systemic perspective on conflicts

How can my colleague behave so inappropriately? He's upsetting the whole team!

When conflicts arise in a team, it quickly happens that we no longer understand the individual behavior of others. They appear irrational, no longer goal-oriented, and sometimes even malicious. Often, our first impulse is to look for the supposed "solution" or the core of the problem in the person: "Maybe my colleague wants to annoy us?" "He must have a hidden agenda" or "There's something wrong with him."

Personal attributions are, of course, one way of grasping the conflict. But often they don't really help us and tend to intensify the conflict. It is quite possible that we simply "write off" certain people at some point and no longer give them the opportunity to explain themselves or to see their strengths.

The systemic perspective on conflicts shows us a different way.

Here, it is a matter of not narrowing the view and looking only at the person, but rather of taking a broad view and looking at the entire context of the conflict. From this perspective, questions such as "How do I explain the occurrence of a conflict?" and "What intervention would be possible and useful to support the resolution of the conflict?" arise in particular. The answers to these questions can be very diverse, as they depend on the individual understanding of a conflict. For example, it makes a significant difference whether a manager questions, "What does this conflict stand for?" or "Who is at fault?" The second question tends to reduce the conflict to individual characteristics of the alleged aggressor. The question "What does this conflict stand for?", on the other hand, means analyzing the facts in the overall context as neutrally as possible and exploring the actions, backgrounds and motives of all those involved in their interactions. Thus, the conflict presents itself more as a response - even if not a constructive one - to a current state of affairs between the parties involved. Perhaps it simply appears to them at present as the only option they see. Thus, the conflict could also be used as a trigger for change. For wherever observers with their different constructions of reality meet, conflicts are inevitable. One can also say that conflicts are part of life and are not exclusively terrible - but can also be highly fruitful in their outcome. In dealing with conflicts, it is a question of individual evaluation which side of this ambivalence is emphasized. A systemic approach opens up a wide range of possibilities for effective and creative action (not only) by managers.

Important questions in this approach

How does the overall context (in the organization/team) trigger and stabilize the conflictual behavior?

Example: A new colleague in the team receives a big leap of faith from her boss and is charged with modernizing the product portfolio and making it fit for the future. The previous product manager was not involved in this decision and there was no official announcement in the department about the new division of roles. From then on, the new colleague regularly receives nasty emails from the product manager and is kept out of important meetings. This example shows that unclear communication and a lack of leadership behavior trigger the conflict and sustain it in the long term. However, with a focus on "blame," the perception is: the product manager is difficult. So close to retirement, you don't want to seek the resolving conversation with him, so you just hold out and avoid the product manager as best you can (which further stabilizes the conflict).

What is the function of this conflict ? What does it stand for?

In our example, the conflict stands for an unclear distribution of roles. At the same time, important principles of cooperation in the team have not been clarified: How do we ensure that our products are future-proof? How do we ensure knowledge transfer between the different generations? How do we deal openly with conflicts in the team? The fact that a colleague suddenly intervenes in his work area leads the experienced product manager to feel that he has to "defend himself. However, since conflicts in the team are not openly expressed, he uses means that appear quite "aggressive" to the others and lead to the conflict being perceived more as a personal feud between him and the new colleague.

If I recognize the systemic context of a conflict, it is often easier for all parties to develop solutions to the conflict. Looking away from the individual to the context can calm heated tempers and promote a more objective view of the conflict. In the end, it is no longer a matter of changing "the difficult colleague", but rather of creating a context in which roles are clarified and employees are enabled to develop principles of cooperation within a safe framework.

How does my favourite model help you?

I recently used the systemic perspective on conflicts in a team workshop. There was relatively high resentment in the team due to the dominant behavior of the manager. The systemic perspective helped the team to get away from blaming and to think more about how the highly regulated corporate context triggers the behavior. It was also interesting to find that the behavior of the team members also perpetuated the boss's dominance. In many discussions, the team members tended to sit back and let the boss do his thing. Dissatisfaction with the situation was only discussed with trusted colleagues, but never openly within the team. This further stabilized the manager's behavior. As a result of this insight and new rules of conduct in the team, everyone involved can now handle the situation better. The manager is working on really handing things over and on delegating, and the team members are working on talking openly about their wishes for more self-determined work.

Some reflection questions for a systemic perspective on conflict resolution are:

  •  What are the possible causes of the conflict?
  • What possible meaning, what function does the conflict have for those involved?
  • What behavior contributes to maintaining the state of conflict?
  • How can the behavior pattern be interrupted or replaced by other behavior?
  • What do we agree to do if we fall back into old patterns?


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