The Neuroscience of Conflict at Work

By Karen Semon

Years ago I had two executive clients who worked for the same company in positions that required them to be highly collaborative.  What occurred in their relationship was anything but collaborative.  Their relationship devolved into a conflict that pulled their organization into the mud with them.

This conflict began pretty innocently twenty years earlier.  One of the leaders was in charge of a major project that was shifting the way they did business when the other leader joined the organization.  Somehow, that no one seemed to remember, the project was reassigned to the new leader leaving the original one working on less important and less interesting projects – his voice becoming devalued in the process which threatened his status in the organization.

What just happened?  A conflict was born.  According to David Rock of the Neuroscience Institute, people continually compare themselves to others and when they sense that their status is reduced in the eyes of other people it triggers a threat response.  So they go into fight or flight.  In this case one went into fight and the other into flight.  It ended up resulting in 20 years of conflict that reached all levels of the organization.

Conflict starts in our brain and arises out of instinct and changes our brain chemistry.  Distrust is increased and we have higher levels of chemicals in our brain that close down new ideas, creative thinking, empathy and good judgment.


The original design was to help you manage when you were facing a large snake that just crawled into your sight to give you the energy to get out of the way!  In our complex business world, fear gets triggered by threats to our status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness that are the survival of a 21st century business person.  Conflict is instinctive and is triggered at an unconscious level, leaving us without some of our best tools such as reasoning and emotion to help guide us out.




Conflict typically looks one of two ways:

  • Aggressive and confronting
  • Passive aggressive and underground

Both of these have unhealthy organizational outcomes.  In the earlier example one person would blow up in meetings about anything the other leader was involved in and cause an outright disruption.  The other was much less obvious but just as poisonous – his looked more like getting anyone who would listen engaged in discussing faults of the other leader and sabotaging outcomes.

When conflict is allowed to fester without being challenged it has the ability to create a cancerous environment in the workplace.   There are the aggressive and passive aggressive but to bring conflict to an end we need a third type of leader in the workplace – a mediator.

Passive/Aggressive Responses Aggressive Responses Mediator Responses
The inability to see the other persons perspective and an inability to see what is important to them

Bitterness, hurt and resentment that is not discussed but covered up

Fear and avoidance of conflict

The withdrawal of approval or friendship that can result in rejection and isolation

The inability to see the other persons perspective and an inability to see what is important to them

Explosive and angry reactions

Lack of awareness of how their anger increases the conflict and damages relationships

Calm, non-defensive, respectful reactions

The ability to see the other persons perspective and respond to the things that matter to them

The ability to compromise and avoid punishment

The belief that not allowing conflict to fester is best for all

Most importantly – the willingness to forgive and not hold it against the other person


When we think of the reptilian brain, the fight or flight response is based on the fact that people don’t feel safe.  The mediator response to conflict creates safety.  Steps that can be taken to rebuild a safe environment are:

  • Actively listening
  • Being non-judgmental
  • Valuing different perspectives
  • Allowing anger and resentment that has festered to be spoken in a safe environment
  • Helping people to get to apology and forgiveness

Our brains are wired to become passive or aggressive during conflict.  In our example, the story ended well.  The two leaders came together and discussed their conflict.  Eventually they truly forgave each other and let go of years of bitterness.  The truth is that conflict is hard but when we allow ourselves to truly see the perspective of the other and to recognize that we aren’t being threatened by any bears, people can move from conflict to peace.

Karen Semon is a seasoned executive and leadership coach with a Masters degree in Conflict Management and Business Psychology. She has a strong interest in how neuroscience impacts the workplace. She is a leadership coach for