(Photo by Skynesher/iStock by Getty Images)

“Humans are not hardwired to be racist or sexist, but they are hardwired to be very biased against other groups,” said Amanda Ripley, an investigative journalist and the author of High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out.

“Groupish” behavior separates people into factions, and factions can go to war. “In high conflict, you tend to have a lot of the wrong fights with the wrong people at the wrong time, and it’s an incredible drain on productivity and general humanity,” Ripley said.

Janelle Nanos, a business reporter at the Boston Globe, interviewed Ripley about the nature of group conflict and its resolution during a one-on-one conversation at From Day One’s virtual conference on Strategies for Communication & Collaboration in the Hybrid Workforce.

“The more you can scramble those groups in creative ways, the better, and the more conflict resilient you’re going to be,” Ripley said.

Ripley recalled that early in her career as a reporter, she and her colleagues were often at odds with their editors, who she felt “were always cutting our best work and our most beautiful phrases, of course.” But her interpretation of their heavy-handedness changed when the editors went on a management retreat and journalists like herself filled the editors’ roles for a week, and she learned why they made some of the decisions they did.

High conflict is not just frequent or particularly heated disagreements. It’s a perpetual state in which two or more teams oppose each other on principle. “It becomes about winning, about annihilating the other side, and in the end, you lose sight of what you went into the conflict to protect,” Ripley said.

A fireside chat about high conflict: moderator Janelle Nanos of the Boston Globe, left, and bestselling author Amanda Ripley (Image by From Day One)

In talking about it, Ripley used the language of war: “trenches,” “peacekeeping,” “conflict zones,” “proxy battles.” The term “high conflict” comes from divorce courts, to put it into perspective. High conflict can make people feel trapped; to break the habit, they have to be drawn out of their trenches and come to understand the “understory,” or what it is people really want and need.

Unionization, for example, can produce an “us vs. them” atmosphere between workers and executives that doesn’t necessarily solve the problems between them.“Sometimes an organization really desperately needs a union, there’s a huge imbalance of power, and there’s exploitation happening. But sometimes starting a union is a way for people to feel like they are doing something in a world where they feel like they can’t do very much, especially on matters of injustice. Sometimes that can become another proxy battle, so you’re not really talking about the thing.” The thing, which is injustice, is the understory, Ripley said, and it’s what needs to be cracked to mollify high conflict.

In one unionization case she witnessed, management’s instinct was to be “defensive, to be stoic, to not let [the workers] see you sweat, to be convicted, to lay down the law. You go into this authoritarian mindset. That is exactly the wrong thing to do in this very delicate moment because it plays into the idea that you are not human, that you are authoritarian.”

Ripley said doing what comes naturally in high-conflict settings is often wrong, and that counterintuitive behavior cools the heat. Ripley and her colleague Hélène Biandudi Hofer, through their organization Good Conflict, train companies on how to manage high conflict. They help teams practice behaving counterintuitively in low-stakes environments so when there’s potential for high conflict, everyone is prepared. They started by training newsrooms and journalists. “Our mission is to try to help people get smarter about how they fight, so that it’s less destructive.”

Companies with distributed workers will have to work particularly hard at avoiding high conflict. “You need about five good encounters for every negative one for conflict to be healthy,” which Ripley called the magic ratio. “It’s just harder to get to five when you don’t see each other in person.”

Employers need to devise opportunities to build up that ratio, to give colleagues and groups reasons to have good encounters. NASA, she said, sees a lot of conflict between its astronauts and ground control. To prevent a high-conflict atmosphere, the organization goes out of its way to increase the good encounters.

They celebrate every birthday, they have taco Tuesdays, they even build forts on “fortnights.” It “sounds so silly and contrived.” she said, “but they're trying to build up that magic ratio so that they can give each other the benefit of the doubt when conflict arises.”

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Va. She writes about the workplace, DEI, hiring, and issues faced by women. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Fast Company, and Food Technology, among others.