Conflict ladder

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One of the most important things in good management is good and clear communication, both when it comes to working in a team and if you are working as a consultant and your relationship with a client. Good communication is important within all types of management - project, program and portfolio. Basically, every time more than one person is working together in solving a problem, and no matter if you are a leader, manager or coworker.

A good way to start having good communication is to avoid bigger conflicts and misunderstandings. Conflicts can occur for many reasons, if not on behalf of unclear goals or misunderstandings, then it often comes from differentiations within perceptions, values and backgrounds [1]. To help control conflicts and keep them from escalating The Conflict Ladder is a good tool to know and use.

Conflict in itself is not a bad thing but escalating conflicts are bad. Actually, if all members of a team always agree, then the work can be unnuanced and going in a wrong direction – so conflicts are good when being controlled [1]. But what is a conflict exactly and what does it mean when a conflict is escalating, and how can it be avoided? This will be described in this article together with the principles of The Conflict Ladder. The Conflict Ladder describes the different stages that exist if a conflict is allowed to escalate fully with anger, blame and personal attack, and the aim is to keep the conflict at lowest possible stage. To keep the conflict at the same stage or to get it to lower stages, there are some tools to manage the conflict.

Not all persons react with anger to a conflict, some will try to avoid the conflict, and here The Conflict Avoidance Ladder will describe the different stages of the conflict. Here the tools to solve the conflict will be different [2].

Different examples of conflicts at different stages and managing tool to use in different relations will be illustrated, so it will be easier for you to incorporate The Conflict Ladder in not only your daily work life but also your personal life.

Why use The Conflict Ladder as a project, program or portfolio manager

When talking about managing, no matter if it is project, program or portfolio management, good communication is the key. In every type of managing information have to be gathered from different actors, agreements have to be made between parts, a solution have to be researched and analyzed by a various of team members. Every time two individuals have to communicate, different parameters can cause a conflict - here the challenge lies in keeping it as a good conflict with a useful outcome for both sides. If the conflict escalates drastic it can have large consequences for the harmony in a team. To keep conflicts at a compatible level sometimes requires clever managing.

What is a conflict?

To know how to keep a good conflict it is essential to know exact what a conflict is. There are many formulations and definitions of what a conflict is. In the DS Handbook 185:2007[1] it is defined as: “An interactive process manifested in incompatibility, disagreement or dissonance within or between social entities.” When trying to straighten out a conflict it is crucial to know the context and what it is about.

Types of conflicts

When it comes to working in a team there are five main types of conflict contexts: methods, resources, values, personal and system. These are described by The Sector of Working Environment (BFA) as following [3]:

Method conflicts: “Is about goals, means, structure and procedures. Professional questions about how the work is carried out and what methods are used to solve the task.”

Resource conflicts: “Emerging from competition for money, time, space, materials and staff.”

Value conflicts: “Is about culture and about personal values and attitudes. What is right and what is wrong? Moral and ethical disagreements, traditions, etc. Here, conflicts can arise between different professional groups, and in cultural clashes between, for example, new and experienced employees.”

Personal conflicts: “Is about identity, self-esteem, loyalty, trust and rejection.” “Here, deep and unconscious feelings are activated, which are about friendship, sympathy and care, which can be difficult to deal with in a workplace, but are crucial for how the individual employee or manager experiences his or her work situation.”

System conflicts: “Is about allocating rights, responsibilities and obligations. The system conflicts arise from the contradictions that arise between employees and managers when legislation, party agreements and professional practices are established in general.”

More than one of these types of conflicts can occur in one conflict, so it is important to detangle a conflict and find a solution to all parts of the conflict. To find a solution to a conflict it is important that the involved parts in the conflict are able to keep the good communication and keep the conflict from escalating. Here The Conflict Ladder is a great tool to understand the different stages in a conflict and which signs to look for at which stages, so it can be avoided to take the step up and escalate the conflict even more.

The Conflict Ladder

Illustration of The Conflict Ladder inspired by the illustration made by Krifa[4]

The Conflict Ladder consists of seven main steps divided into three colors – the green area, the yellow and the red. By stepping up the ladder into another color means that it will be very hard to deescalate the conflict back down again. The green area is where both parts of the conflicts can win something from the conflict, and this will be a healthy conflict. When two parts having a conflict in the green area and solves this, the relation between the two parts will be strengthened. When stepping up to the yellow steps means that the situation changes and only one part will win something – both parts will try to win whatever it takes. When reaching the red area, it will be a loose-loose and either part will not get anything positive out of the conflict – here the conflict will be more like a warfare[5]. Each step of the ladder represents a way of acting, thinking or reacting. These are the signs to look for when having a conflict - to be able to react on these behavior patterns will be revolutionary when handling future conflicts. In the following the different steps will be described and on the figure The Conflict Ladder is illustrated with the color scale of the different steps.

The 7 Steps

Step 1 - Disagreement

A disagreement appears and is solved easy and constructively between the involved parts because both remains focused by listening and keep being open for other opinions[6]. Here listening and having respect for the other part's opinion are the essence.

Turn point: Going from having focus on the disagreement to get personal.

Step 2 - Blame

The situation changes so instead of aiming for the ball the aim is now the other part, so the blaming starts. Either part will not get something good out of the blaming, and the conflict is no longer constructively[7].

Step 3 - The problem grows

Other problems and disagreements will be put on the table – other unsolved disagreements no matter if they are new, old or other straight out of context[7].

Step 4 - The dialogue disappears

The original disagreement is now shaded and almost forgotten, overshined by all the negative and the dialogue fades out. Instead of communicating with the other part the energy is transferred into talking about the other part instead[7].

Turn point: Going from personal to warfare.

Step 5 - Enemy images

The communication has stopped, and the original disagreement totally forgotten. Instead, the other part has become more like an enemy and the aim only is to be right and to get the other part to surrender[8].

Step 6 - Hostility

Now the other part is the enemy and a war is started. The aim of being right is forgotten and taken over by anger so the goal is to hurt the other part – no matter the cost[4].

Step 7 - Polarization

Ending up at this step means that the parts can no longer be in the same room, and the conflict has reached the top[4].

When knowing the different kinds of conflicts and what parameters characterizing the different steps of The Conflict Ladder, then the theory is that it is easier to avoid escalating conflicts. It is used as a tool in many workplaces to keep the good and constructive communication, because all will know how to keep the conflicts positive with a useful outcome. This is specially applying where the agile way of working is applied.

Not all conflicts will be escalated by blame and emotions and follow the steps of The Conflict Ladder. Some conflicts will be avoided instead if one part has a shy personality or just want to turn the other cheek to a conflict[2]. When this is the case the conflict will follow The Conflict Avoidance Ladder instead, and here the case is a bit different.


To have the best outcome of The Conflict Ladder it is important that as many as possible knows to the tool. That means that as a project, program or portfolio manager it can be useful to introduce to all - fortunately it is easy tool to understand but can be very profitable. To talk openly about conflicts within a team, is a good way to keep the awareness of the tool until it comes naturally. After having understood the steps and which signs to be aware of, having an illustration of The Conflict Ladder visual to everyone, will help to remember the tool.

When using The Conflict Ladder there are some tools to use at the different steps of the ladder to deescalate the conflict and to get to the lower steps. The aim for every escalated conflict is to get back to step 1 again - to be able to get a healthy conflict with a beneficial outcome.

Conflict management tools

These tools relies on the color of the current step. Therefore, first step when noticing a conflict is to detect the stage, and from here to use the following tools to control the conflict. If you yourself are a part of the conflict it is all about trying to use the knowledge of the different steps and avoid taking a step up the ladder. Sometimes the conflict is first clear to you when being above step 1, if the other part is more eager. Then the challenge is to bring the other part down again. Below some useful tools are given for each color area.

Tools to the green area: At step 1 it is important to stay cool and stick to the topic. Show respect and listen to the other part by using push and pull communication. If the conflict is hard to solve a tool like negotiation can be useful to reach an agreement. In the DS Handbook 185:2007[1] it stands: “Negotiation is, amongst other things, a key tool for conflict resolution. (…) When entering a negotiation, consider what is relevant to you, prepare strong arguments and an attractive BATNA (best alternative to non-agreement). Ideally, negotiations should be shaped as a problem-solving instead of a bargaining task.”

Tools to the yellow area: If the other part in the conflict starts crossing the line to the yellow area, it is important not to follow. Stay cool and let the accusation pass. Avoid discussing other problems being brought to the table by the other part but without ignoring them. Phrases like “let us solve one problem at a time” can be useful[2].

Tools to the red area: When the conflict reaches this area a third part is necessary to get the conflict under control. The uninvolved part will have a mediating role. The goal for the mediator is to create a safe room to reestablish the contact between the involved parts[9].

In general these tools can be helpful to keep a conflict from escalating: Active Listening Techniques, Constructive communication, link Self-Awareness, Choosing the appropriate medium (oral- written – hybrids).

No matter if you are the manager or just a team member the conflict management tools can be useful when detecting a conflict. If being a project, program or portfolio manager conflicts can quickly occur if you are being unclear and then misunderstood by the team, and therefore it is beneficial to have a tool by the hand to keep the misunderstanding from becoming a bigger conflict. If you as a manager are detecting a big conflict within your team the most important thing for you to remember, is to divide sun and wind equal.

The good conflict within a project team

To have a team performing at its highest it is important to have a good constructive communication with healthy conflicts. “ (…) individuals in teams are interdependent, their work needs joint effort, and synergy effects emerge.”[1] Therefore, it is important that all team members know about how to avoid escalating conflicts, and how to solve them. Teams can be composed in a lot of ways; very experienced can be put together with a recent graduate, people from different cultures, different professions etc. These diverse compositions can create a variation of conflicts depending on the phase of the team development or the pressure the team is under – for example “when deadlines get closer, the team has a moment of conflict and sense of urgency. If managed well, this is used to gain momentum and pull people together to deliver the intended outcomes, as oppose to e.g. blaming one another for potential delays and rework”[1].

An example of a conflict could be two team members working on a project, one of them have been in the business for over 15 years where the other have just graduated and are working on the first project. Between these two a lot of disagreements can occur, especially method and value conflicts. Here it is important that if a method conflict occurs, that they have to listen to how the other are used to work with a certain tool. Try not to think that their way is the correct way, and respect the other by listening and through push and pull communication, they will come to an agreement of how the tool will be used. By that the conflict will be kept at step 1 and the two team members will have made a tighter bond, and they know that they can solve conflict together.

Keep a good relationship to your project owner

When being a project, program or portfolio management practitioner working on a case for a client, it is very important always to maintain a good relation to the project owner. To make sure that the expectations from the project owner will be fulfilled by the project it is important to have a constructive and clear communication. If any disagreements on behalf of for example misunderstood expectation alignments occurs, then it is important to solve the conflict avoiding it to escalate. If a client and project owner is very passioned about the substance conflicts can relatively easily escalate into the yellow area. ”You can’t discuss the problem with the customer before you’re both back at Step 1 of The Conflict Ladder where there’s no emotional involvement. You need good contact and mutual understanding, making it possible to further discuss the problem without blame and personal attack.”[2]


The Conflict Ladder is a great tool to understand the different stages of a conflict, and which actions to look out for when being in a conflict. But if the other part is not familiar with The Conflict Ladder it can be hard trying to keep them from making the conflict escalate. Therefor the tool works best if both parties know the tool and can thereby collaborate in keeping the good conflict. If only one part understands the consequences of a heightening conflict, it can be a lot of work to manage the conflict.

If seeing The Conflict Ladder as a way of solving complex conflicts it will fail. It is a tool to understand how a conflict escalates, and how to bring it back to step 1 again, where it is possible to solve the conflict while maintaining a positive relation between the parties. To help solve the conflict at step 1 other management tools have to be used, such as negotiation.

It can be hard to see the conflict in a bigger picture when the parties in the conflicts are not only two people and if the conflict contains of more than one type of conflict. Here The Conflict Model of like Van de Vlierts can be useful to map the conflict to provide an overview, and by that be able to learn from what went wrong with handling the conflict.

All in all, without constructive and good communication there will be no way to solve a conflict – no matter which tools are being used. If for example the communication keeps generating misunderstandings and thereby disagreements, the conflict will either escalate or go around and around.

Annotated bibliography

The Conflict Ladder - How to prevent and manage conflicts, BFA Handel, 2020[2]. This leaflet is produced by The Sector Working Environment Committee for Retailing to improve the customer contact in the industry. It is like a handbook where The Conflict Ladder and The Conflict Avoidance Ladder is discribed, and different tools to use.

Five types of conflicts, The Sector Working Environment Committee for Welfare and Public Administration [3]. This is a webpage made by The Sector Working Environment Committee for Welfare and Public Administration describing the five different types of conflicts which can occur in a work relation, how to deal with them, and in which format a solution might be.

Catch the conflict, L. Christy, The Crime Prevention Council in cooperation with Center for Conflict Resolution, 2012[9] This leaflet is made as a tool to learn how to handle conflicts occurring in the Danish schools. It goes through what a conflict is, The Conflict Ladder, different conflict management tools and how to spread the knowledge.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 J. Geraldi, C. Thuesen, J. Oehmen & V. Stingl. (2017). Doing Projects - Nordic flavour to managing projects. Danish Standards Foundation. 88-97.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 BFA Handel,\& Marianne Lassen (Stockfleth & Lassen). (2020). The Conflict Ladder - How to prevent and manage conflicts. Visited: 08/02/2021.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Branche Fællesskab Arbejdsmiljø (BFA). Fem typer af konflikter. Visited: 10/02/2021.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Krifa. Når konflikten topper. Visited: 10/02/2021.
  5. Branche Fællesskab Arbejdsmiljø (BFA). Konflikttrappen - Konflikters udvikling. Visited: 10/02/2021.
  6. Branche Fællesskab Arbejdsmiljø (BFA). Grøn konflikt - fokus på sagen. Visited: 10/02/2021.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Branche Fællesskab Arbejdsmiljø (BFA). Gul konflikt - fokus på personen. Visited: 10/02/2021.
  8. Branche Fællesskab Arbejdsmiljø (BFA). Rød konflikt - fokus på krigsførelse. Visited: 10/02/2021.
  9. 9.0 9.1 L. Christy. "Grib konflikten". 3rd edition (2012). Det Kriminalpræventive Råd. 18-22.
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