Making Conflict Work in Organizations and Teams

Small group collaborating

“In great teams conflict becomes productive.” – Peter Senge

Greetings! We have some exciting news to share here at Synerlogic. We’re launching a new podcast titled Leadership Bebop, a new Substack newsletter, and a new collaborative forum for shared learning. The focus of these endeavors is helping teams and organizations leverage constructive conversations to fuel creativity and collaboration and build more human-centered enterprises.

Keep reading for insights into our What, Why, and Why Now questions.

Technology Has Manifested (And Now Directs) Our Collective Human Consciousness

As we near the end of the first quarter of the 21st Century, technology continues to transform the human experience. In the past three decades, the internet revolutionized communication, collaboration, and access to information while the smartphone connected the world. Together, these technologies manifested our collective consciousness. Now, generative AI and other emerging technologies are rapidly transforming how we work, play, communicate, create, and share our lives with each other.

For the entirety of history, humans have worked together one-on-one and in groups and communities. Those who sought access to the collective consciousness—oracles and seers and such—were typically set apart: sometimes revered and highly esteemed, sometimes forced to hide in the shadows. Legends of their mysterious divinations spread in whispered tones. At best, though, they merely guessed at the presence of shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave.

Now, a simple farmer in a remote, rural area can use a handheld device to access all of the world’s knowledge. And nearly anyone can instantly and in real-time communicate with others around the globe. And generative AI is rapidly expanding who has access to tools and resources in a wide range of fields and industries.

Human Ontogeny and the Contradictions of Our Shared Experience

Developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello explains that what sets humans apart from other species is that we are hardwired for hyper-connectivity. “The shift to an ultra-cooperative lifestyle during human evolution transformed the nature of human social relationships,” he writes in his 2019 book, Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny.1

This ability to collaborate is the defining feature of human development. As a result, humans have evolved to become more and more interdependent. We operate with shared intentions, shared knowledge, and shared sociomoral values.2 But these are not fully developed at birth:

The unique motives and attitudes of shared intentionality thus enable humans, but not other apes, to relate to one another in some new ways cooperatively, even morally. But these motives and attitudes do not come into being full-blown. They come into being through a developmental process, extended over time, in which maturation, experience, and executive self-regulation all play constitutive roles.3

While other primate species also live and operate in groups, humans have unique emotions closely tied to an “in-group / out-group psychology.”4 Unlike our closest primate relatives, who typically remain closely aligned with the group they are born into, humans have the capacity to develop group affiliations and loyalties based on the “thinnest of veneers.”5

Our fluid sense of personal and group identity stems from our unique ability to form relationships and connections with others. It reflects our capacity for abstract thought and shared learning, allowing us to interpret and evaluate situations in complex ways.

This dynamic process of forming and reforming group identities is essential to the human experience. Through this process, individuals gain a sense of belonging and purpose while groups develop a shared history and culture.

Technology is Rapidly Transforming The Core Functions of Human Evolution

These fundamental drivers of human evolution—how we cooperate and collaborate—are being rewritten by numerous parallel and intersecting innovations.

The internet and smartphone continue to be the predominant forces shaping this process. Many other new developments are now joining these: AI, automation, 5G, virtual and augmented reality, quantum computing, 3D printing, Web3, and more.  6

These technologies further shape how we communicate, collaborate, and create. And how we engage in conflict conversations. Technology no longer merely reflects our collective consciousness. It now also directs it.

At the same time, these technologies are fundamentally human inventions. As such, they reflect (and amplify) the many contradictions, complexities, and paradoxes of the human experience.

Technology can simplify and streamline many things while also adding complexity to our work and daily lives. It improves access yet also increases exclusion and inequality. It brings us closer together but also makes building meaningful relationships difficult. And technology makes communication faster and easier, yet it also hinders effective communication.

As for collaboration, technology has greatly improved speed and convenience; however, it can also lead to increased miscommunication and misunderstandings and greater inefficiencies. With the advent of instant messaging, emails, and social media, it has become easier than ever to send messages but more difficult to interpret them correctly.

And while video conferencing and online collaboration tools make it easier to work together, these also create layers of complexity and an environment of distraction and fragmentation. This can make staying focused and engaged in our work and conversations difficult.

How Social Media Divides Us

Some technological advancements seem to be increasing the frequency and complexity of human conflict. This is particularly true for social media and other platforms that tap into—and even exploit and manipulate—our fluid sense of identity and group loyalty.

Researchers have observed that people communicate collectively when they engage with social media. “Through language and example, community members educate one another. They reinforce each other’s thinking and communication.7

This observation is consistent with Tomasello‘s argument that cooperation and shared learning are fundamental to the human experience. However, social media and other online activities also seem to alter how we communicate.

Commentators have observed that the proliferation of social media and other online activities adversely affects our reallife connections.8 These face-to-face interactions have been essential for human cooperation and collaboration. They served as building blocks for the institutions and social capital that bound us together in communities and societies.

Geography, local culture, family ties, and other functions of place-based communities limited our associations in the past. With the rise of social media and online interactions, we now have limitless opportunities to form and engage with a wide variety of new communities and social identities.

The introduction of digital communication platforms presents exciting new possibilities for how we cooperate and collaborate. It also narrows our social interactions. We are increasingly being grouped into likeminded echo chambers that reinforce existing beliefs and promote extreme perspectives, leading to heightened aggression, animosity, and narcissism. This has been accompanied by a rise in depression and loneliness, despite the illusion of being more connected.9

Our Increasing Appetite for Technology and the Future of Work

Researchers point to two self-reinforcing factors for these trends: people’s consumption of technology and social media algorithms built for polarization and extremes.10

Regardless of one‘s opinion on the pros and cons of social media and other online activities, their prevalence is having a major effect on societies worldwide and is fundamentally altering how we work together and live our lives.

Organizational leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to cultivate shared commitments, unite teams behind organizational objectives, and facilitate constructive conflict conversations. This is due in part to the intense bond people have to group identities created outside of their workplace, particularly those rooted in political ideologies fueled by social media and online networks. At the same time, employee engagement continues to decline.11

My Journey Into the World of Bionic Hearing, Organizational Design, and Conflict Engagement

My personal and professional life experiences have led me to explore the intersection of technology, organizational development, conflict engagement, and interpersonal communication. Listening is the common thread.

On a personal level, my journey has been influenced by a sudden-onset hearing loss as a teenager and a subsequent decades-long (and still ongoing) quest to learn to communicate effectively despite my hearing loss. More recently, I’ve been adapting to a cochlear implant and learning to process and appreciate new sounds through a digital filter.

Through this process, I have gained a deeper appreciation for how technology can both enhance and hinder communication. I have also come to understand that each of us faces great challenges and obstacles as we navigate an unknown and unknowable future.

Above all, though, I have come to appreciate the power of effective listening—listening so the other person feels heard. This one skill is key to connecting with people from all walks of life. And I have learned this does not always correlate with good hearing.

In my professional career spanning a quarter century—as a business and tax law attorney in private practice and, more recently, an organizational consultant, strategist, coach, and trained mediator—I’ve seen firsthand the importance of good communication. Effective listening, not better messaging, is key to increased engagement in organizations and teams.

Leveraging Conflict to Fuel Collaboration, Innovation, and Resiliency in Organizations

From my perspective, one of the biggest obstacles to effective communication is the prevailing mindset that conflict is innately a negative experience. It is frequently viewed as an indicator that something is “wrong.” In this approach—which is now deeply entrenched in a sprawling “conflict-industrial complex”— disputes are something to avoid, minimize, “manage,” or “resolve.”

As social media and other online activities polarize and push people toward more extreme views, it is understandable that many people would view conflict itself as the “problem.” Unfortunately, this misconception may actually be making things worse.

This view of conflict as being innately negative is, in essence, a fear- and shame-based response. It arises from a deep discomfort with discord and a misdirected focus on removing unpleasantries rather than pursuing shared commitments through collaboration and continual learning.

In his now-classic work, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge—American systems scientist and senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management—refers to this approach as “conflict manipulation.”

Conflict manipulation is the favored strategy of people who incessantly worry about failure, of managers who excel at motivational chats that point out the highly unpleasant consequences if the company’s goals are not achieved, and of social movements that attempt to mobilize people through fear. In fact, sadly, most social movements operate through conflict manipulation or “negative vision,” focusing on getting away from what we don’t want, rather than on creating what we do want….12

By contrast, Senge argues, effective teams embrace conflict as a necessity for continual learning and growing together:

Contrary to popular myth, great teams are not characterized by an absence of conflict. On the contrary, in my experience, one of the most reliable indicators of a team that is continually learning is the visible conflict of ideas. In great teams conflict becomes productive.13

Ed Catmull, one of the co-founders of Pixar Animation Studios, makes the same observation in his book, Creativity, Inc.:

It is management’s job to figure out how to help others see conflict as healthy—as a route to balance, which benefits us all in the long run. I’m here to say that it can be done—but it is an unending job.14

What Senge and Catmull (and others) have observed makes sense in light of Tomasello’s theory of human ontogeny. If, as Tomasello argues, our propensity to cooperate and collaborate is at the core of human evolution, then our ability to work through conflict is key to creative endeavors, true innovation, and organizational resiliency.

This leads to the question: how can teams and organizations engage in constructive conflict conversations, and what should leaders do about destructive or toxic workplace behaviors that are not aimed at advancing shared commitments and organizational objectives?

Explorations in Constructive Conflict Communication

In the coming weeks and months, I will be exploring these questions and other themes, insights, and practical lessons on constructive conflict engagement in business and at work.

These explorations will take place in dialogues and group discussions across three new channels:

You’re invited to join me on this journey!

And if you have ideas for the podcast, newsletter, or our collaborative learning forum, I’d love to hear from you!

I look forward to connecting and continuing the conversation!


  1. Tomasello, Michael. Becoming Human. Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition. (p. 189)
  2. Tomasello, Becoming Human at p. 7.
  3. Tomasello, Becoming Human at p. 190.
  4. Tomasello, Becoming Human at p. 252.
  5. Id.
  6. See Bernard Mar, 5 Life-Changing Tech Innovations That Most People Don’t Understand Yet (Forbes, Jan. 9, 2023),
  7. Kozinets, R., Hufschmid Chair of Strategic Public Relations (2022, December 21). How social media fires people’s passions – and builds extremist divisions. The Conversation. Retrieved January 10, 2023, from
  8. Vinnakota, R. (2018, August 2). How social media divides us. The Aspen Institute. Retrieved January 10, 2023, from
  9. Kozinets, R., Patterson, A., & Ashman, R. (2016). (tech.). Networks of Desire: How Technology Increases Our Passion to Consume. Journal of Consumer Research. Retrieved January 10, 2023, from
  10. See Kozinets, R., Id., How social media fires people’s passions. See also Grannon, R. (2019). Plugged In: The True Toxicity of Social Media Revealed (Mental Health Documentary). YouTube. YouTube. Retrieved January 10, 2023, from
  11. Harter, J. (2022, November 11). U.S. employee engagement slump continues. Retrieved January 10, 2023, from
  12. Senge, Peter M.. The Fifth Discipline (p. 199). Crown. Kindle Edition.
  13. Senge, The Fifth Discipline at p. 315.
  14. Catmull, Ed; Wallace, Amy. Creativity, Inc. (p. 162). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
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