How to Recognize the 5 Conflict Levels in the Workplace

Conflict is always present between stakeholders in any project but there are different conflict levels which require appropiate response. Not all conflict should be treated the same and as a project manger understanding the conflict level

According to Speed Leas, conflict begins to form and escalates in a pattern that is predictable. Having a continued conflict starts with a problem that is needed to be solved and escalates to a world war which is worst case scenario.

5 Levels of Conflict
5 Levels of Conflict

Level 1: Problem to Solve

Some of the signs of problems is that language is communicated with good intentions as well as it being constructive. It motivated by sharing information and collaborating with the someone else to fix the problem.

Another sign of level 1 conflict would when facts are utilized as a means of backing up an argument. The environment of a team in this current level of conflict will still find themselves to be relatively optimistic and are capable of moving through the conflict. It is more closely defined to being affective conflict within teams that are high performing.


  • Language is generally open-hearted and constructive.
  • People uses facts to back up the argument.

Response Options

  • Collaboration: Look for a win-win situation.
  • Consensus: Look for a solution everyone can agree on.

Level 2: Disagreement

While level 2 isn’t considered a hostile level of conflict, it is designed with the intent of building a wall. A sign of a disagreement would be having language that is geared more towards protecting self.

The premise is that the protection of self takes precedent over collaborating with others. The language in a level 2 conflict will find itself more guarded and a lot less direct, so it can be open to interpretation. This represents itself in a project team by members making the decision to distance themselves or take a position that they believe will be for a compromise. Underlying conflicts may find themselves emerging to build into level 3.


  • Language is self-protection.

Response Options

  • Support: Empower team to resolve disagreement themselves.
  • Safety: Use collaboration games to reinforce team shared values.

Level 3: Contest

Level 3 conflict is when factions being to emerge. Misunderstandings and power politics will make appearance and people will begin to align themselves by picking a side. A sign of a contest is where the language would be manipulated to the point where presumptions are made and over generalization forms.

The language in a level 3 conflict resorts to personal attacks with the goal to win in the conflict instead of resolving the conflict. Some examples of this may be “He always forgets to turn off the system before he leaves from our meetings” or “you always interrupt me when I have some input to share”. Team members will also view themselves as well meaning while the rest of their team isn’t. 


  • Language is distorted where presumptions are made and over generalisation.

Response Options

  • Accommodate: Yield to others viewpoint as the relationship more important than an issue.
  • Negotiate: If an issue is “Dividable” then negotiation can work.
  • Get Factual: Gather data on an issue to get facts.

Level 4: Crusade

The signs of crusade is when conflict transitions to become polarized and ideological. The focus now shifts to protecting one’s own group. At this level, the premise of just having a solution isn’t enough and the only option that exists is for team members to remove themselves from the team completely.

The factions that were created in level three now have more solidification and see the other team as the enemy. Everyone that isn’t a part of their faction is being attacked solely for who they are affiliated with, not for the ideas that they have. Groups will also see themselves as righteous. 


  • The conflict becomes ideological and polarised.

Response Options

  • Diplomacy: Be a facilitator between two groups as all communication has broken down.
  • De-Escalate: Try to de-escalate the conflict to a lower level.

Level 5: World War

Having a world war conflict is when language tends to no longer exist in level 5. The goal in this level of conflict is to destroy the other (lose-lose). At this point there isn’t any constructive outcome that can be obtained at this level. The position that is taken is that winning is not enough and that others have to lose because of this, only option that exists in this level is to separate team members so that they don’t hurt each other as violent conflict can occur.


  • Language is little or non-existent.

Response Options

  • Unresolvable: Sometimes when it gets to level 5 the conflict is unresolvable and you need to figure out  a way everyone can remain working without hurting each other.

>> More info on How to Recognize the 5 Conflict Levels in the Workplace

Conflict Resolution

A main goal that a project manager should have with conflict arises within their team is to have methods for conflict resolution available. But it is also important for a project manager to know when to identify when it is appropriate to step back or to step in. Team members in agile teams are capable of being able to navigate through conflict on their own. Take this opportunity to see if there is progress occurring. This is so that your team can grow and have the ability to be able to learn how to resolve conflict themselves. 

If, however, you decide that it is time to intervene, it is important for your to utilize responses modes that require analysis and response, the use of structures, and reveal. 
Major Sources of Conflict in Project Management

Analyze and Respond

It is important to remember that when it comes to being in analyze-and-respond mode, the entire story is unknown. Consider that every perspective is valid and necessary for resolution. Each team member has their own perspective that should be considered. 

Some questions to consider in this mode:

  • What is the conflict level?
  • What are the presented issues?
  • In what way would I respond as side 1?
  • In what way would I respond as side 2?
  • Are there any open options for resolution?
  • What should I do at this point?

Make a table for resolution options after you identify the conflict levels. Once the team is able to de-escalate, there are now additional options available to them for dealing with the conflict the next time they arise. 

It is recommended that the resolution type that you select for your team is one that leads to a win-win solution for all parties involved. This helps eliminate continued conflict. An additional tool that is beneficial for project managers is understanding the organizational Conflict Model.

The Conflict Model, which describes the methods for how people think, feel, and act in the presence of conflict is helpful for managers to understand so that they can learn to be able to effectively navigate through conflict resolution for their team and organization conflict.

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