Collaboration Over Conflict

Conflict…once again I broach this topic as an attempt to lean into the discomfort of conflict, to develop new tools and muscles to better handle it, as well as to learn and grow through it personally, professionally, and relationally. Recently my husband (who often bears the brunt of my journey with conflict!) introduced me to a Tedx talk by Jim Tamm on collaboration. Mr. Tamm was a Senior Administrative Law Judge for the State of California for 25 years and during his tenure mediated more than 1,000 employment disputes. The California Senate, the California Assembly and the California Public Employment Relations Board have all honored Mr. Tamm for his work building more collaborative employment environments.

In his Tedx talk, Mr. Tamm provides a striking and poignant metaphor for describing the collaborative (or adversarial) cultures of organizations. The metaphor comes from an experiment conducted at Purdue University to see if it was possible to breed collaborative instincts in chickens. In the experiment, researchers physically separated chickens into two groups: Green Zone Chickens and Red Zone Chickens. The Green Zone Chickens, while not the most productive chickens were characterized by being “nice” to other chickens. On the other hand, the Red Zone Chickens were the star performers in terms of egg production, but often became the star performers by aggressively suppressing the egg production of the other chickens (i.e. pecking at them). After one year of the experiment (and five generations of chickens later), the results were dramatic: the Green Zone Chickens were healthy and productive; in fact, egg production went up 260% in one year. In stark contrast, more than half to the Red Zone Chickens had been pecked to death by their fellow Red Zone Chickens! Needless to say, egg production dropped dramatically!

Mr. Tamm uses the metaphor of the Red Zone and Green Zone as a way of describing the culture of an organization and its approach to conflicted situations as well as the correlating impact on productivity. Red Zone cultures are more adversarial, conflicted, and un-collaborative environments. Green Zone cultures are more collaborative. The below lists contrast the different approaches each zone applies to conflicted situations.

Red Zone Approach

Green Zone Approach

Low trust-high blame High Trust-low blame
Threats and fear Mutual Support
Guardedness Dialogue and shared vision
Hostility Honesty and openness
Withholding energy Cooperation
Risk avoidance Risk Taking
Attitude of entitlement Sense of contribution
Cynicism and suspicion Sincerity and optimism
Work is painful Work is pleasurable
External motivation Internatl motivation

Now, to take a step back and reflect, how would you describe your approach to conflict? How does your business or organization approach conflict? Would you describe your home as a Red Zone or Green Zone? How do you see the culture impacting the productivity of your place of work? Your home?

Mr. Tamm persuasively argues that there is nothing that helps you become more effective in dealing with conflict and better at collaboration than managing your own defensiveness. He stated that he almost never had to deal with pure legal issues, but the issues before him were almost always due to someone feeling vulnerable and then getting defensive. According to Mr. Tamm, when we get defensive our thinking becomes rigid, our IQ drops ~20 points, we become terrible problem solvers, and then we invite others to get defensive too which just leads to having a whole group of Red Zone people who cannot effectively solve the problem. Mr. Tamm observes that when we get defensive we are usually not defending ourselves from another person, but rather defending ourselves from the following fears:

  • Fears about significance.
  • Fears about competence.
  • Fears about likeability.

So how do we manage our own defensiveness (and fears) in order to create more collaborative cultures and therefore also increase productivity? Based on his extensive experience, Mr. Tamm suggests the following five steps:

  1. Acknowledge to yourself you are getting defensive.
  2. Do whatever you can do to slow down (e.g., take a walk, take deep breaths, etc.) – slowing down both your physical and emotional reactions helps to defuse defensiveness.
  3. Pay attention to your self-talk – if you are engaged in negative self-talk, try to turn it into something more positive and less toxic.
  4. Create an action step directly related to your sign of defensiveness (e.g., if you become sarcastic when you get defensive, ask a question instead; if you start to over-explain yourself, be quiet and listen; etc.).
  5. Start over – give yourself a second chance to move away from defensiveness and towards collaboration.

As you finish reading this blog, take a few moments to reflect on the last 2-3 situations when conflict arose. What happened? When did you notice you felt defensive? Why were you defensive? Were there ways you could have slowed down to notice your defensiveness and changed course? What are action steps you could take in future situations when you start to notice that you are becoming defensive? What are ways you need to manage your own defensiveness in order to move toward an increasingly Green Zone culture in your business?

As we go about our days may we work toward building Green Zone cultures in our businesses and our personal lives, cultivating cultures of collaboration which in turn foster organizational health and productivity.

About the Author
Hilary Tricerri is a consultant with Morrison, working primarily in our Grants practice. To get in touch with Hilary, please find contact information for Morrison here.


We’ve worked with a wide variety of clients on a broad range of projects and are happy to discuss solutions that can best fit your needs.

Get in Touch