Conflict Resolution: Motivation as the Missing Piece of the Puzzle

Workplace conflict is not uncommon, but it also may not be obvious. The word “conflict” may call to mind sharp words or raised voices, but it often takes on subtler forms: undermining a colleague; dismissing someone’s ideas without sufficient consideration; avoidance; even just the emotional and mental exhaustion people experience when working alongside someone who they just can’t seem to click with.

Recently, MRG President Tricia Naddaff joined longtime MRG partner Uli Otto to lead a workshop on resolving conflict and building better relationships using data on motivation – specifically, the Individual Directions Inventory™ (IDI) and its new comparative profile. The profile provides the motivational data for multiple individuals on a single profile, making it easy to see where big differences – or in some cases, similarities – could be causing or exacerbating conflict.

Read on for highlights from the workshop.

If You Have a Brain, You’re Biased

Bias is a loaded word, but when you look at it from a neuroscientific perspective, it’s simple: if you have a brain, you’re biased. Unconscious biases are the shortcuts built into our brains so that we can function in the world. Biases evolved in our brains for a reason, but they can lead us to make snap judgments about people with only a small amount of data or experience about them – we take a single experience (or even something we heard about a person) and extend that to an evaluation of their entire character.

These assumptions happen fast – and moreover, our brains are built to be over-confident in these assumptions. So once we’ve established these perceptions, they can be tough to shake. (To dig deeper into bias, MRG has a number of resources. This blog post is a great starting point; if you’re an MRG partner, log into the Knowledge Base and search “bias” for more materials.)

One more important note about these cognitive biases: our brains rely on them even more in complex conditions and in times of stress. That means the circumstances we find ourselves in – a deadly pandemic, a global financial crisis – will cause us to jump to conclusions even faster and hold to them even tighter.

How Emotions and Motivations Come into Play

Over a lifetime, the brain collects information that forms a database completely unique to the individual. The database is based not only on experiences, but also emotions and motivations.

The motivations that drive and fulfill us – or those that drain us – can easily influence the ways we perceive other people’s actions and expectations. A person who is highly motivated by giving to others, for example, might assume that other people always want their help. A leader who is highly driven by setting higher and higher goals may believe that’s the only way to motivate a team.

At MRG, we look closely at motivation using the Individual Directions Inventory™ (IDI), an assessment that measures 17 dimensions that can drive or drain an individual. (If you’re new to the IDI, you can learn more about the tool here.) One of the guiding principles of the tool is that energy is neutral: what motivates us may be different, but no set of motivations is better or worse than another.

Based on years of using this tool in coaching and development, we can see the role that motivation can play in generating interpersonal tension and conflict. Motivations influence the assumptions we make about others, and even about ourselves.

Here are just a few of the ways that motivation can contribute to conflict:

  • Centering ourselves in the narrative. When we’re blind to the motivations of others, we often tell ourselves stories about why they are doing the things they do. Those stories often feature us as the hero (“They are doing this to me!”), when in fact they are typically driven by satisfying their own motivations; but without greater awareness, we rarely take that into account.
  • Strife from too much similarity. Two people who are deeply driven by the same thing may find themselves in conflict or competition, as they find the same experiences, roles, or attentions rewarding.
  • Misaligned values (or at least a perception of misaligned values). When we are observing others in action only, we may see things that lead us to presume someone else just doesn’t value the same things we do. When we have the opportunity to talk on a deeper level about the diversity of values we bring to a team, we may find that we all share similar ideals, we just approach them in different (even complementary) ways.
  • Not getting what we need. When others have few insights into what drives or energizes you, they can easily leave you without the type of support you need to feel fulfilled – even as they may spin their wheels attempting to support you based on misguided assumptions. This can present particular risks in supervisory relationships, where a leader can easily assume that direct reports are motivated by the same things we are.

Depending on the makeup of a team or a pair, each of those potential sources of conflict could be causing anything from a tiny fissure to a fault line. But whether the tensions are large or small, if they’re left unchecked, it is easy to see how resentment can build and interpersonal dynamics can suffer.

Shedding Light on Motivation to Ease Tension and Resolve Conflict

This is where having objective insights into motivation comes into play. Using the IDI for an individual provides one level insight by increasing their self-awareness. Seeing your own motivations in a new light, understanding how they can combine with each other to shape how you experience the world, recognizing where your most salient drivers have the potential to exacerbate bias – this is all valuable insight.

Understanding these motivations in the context of another person (or people) can elevate the impact of these insights even further, and this is why MRG created the IDI Comparative Profile.

When individual feedback and coaching (raising self-awareness) is followed by pair work, it adds several important elements to the conversation:

  • Increased awareness of the other. Understanding another individual’s motivational profile, in and of itself, can lead to a greater appreciation of individuality and a more accurate basis for evaluating and understanding that person’s actions going forward.
  • Greater awareness of dynamics. Looking at motivations in contrast to each other can quickly illuminate sources of friction that could have taken hours to uncover in conversation alone (if they were ever discovered at all). Seeing and discussing stark differences and close similarities seen in the comparative profile provides a neutral, non-judgmental framework to discuss points of conflict.
  • A starting point for identifying new strategies. Of course, self-awareness is enlightening, but to make an impact, it needs to be supported by action. The motivational insights of the IDI can build a strong foundation for new strategies for working together. The IDI is powerful in this case not only because of the level of insight available, but because of its neutrality. Motivations are not good or bad, they are simply different – so conversations about strategic steps forward begin from a place of acceptance, not critique.

While the IDI Comparative Profile is new, the IDI has a long history of use in supporting groups and teams. Learn more about using the IDI with teams in this case study. If you aren’t certified in the IDI but are considering using the tool, look for upcoming certification dates here, or get in touch with the MRG team.

About the author

Lucy is the Head of Marketing at MRG. She's a passionate people person who talks with her hands even when she's on the phone. She will not rest until everyone on earth has taken their IDI.

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Nancy Cannon-OConnell
3 years ago

This is an excellent summary of the value leaders get from the IDI. I had not considered the conflict resolution lens until very recently, when I was brought into a firm to mediate a very public conflict between the CEO & COO. After talking with each person (one of whom said he would ‘never speak to the other again’), I asked each to complete the IDI. We then walked through their profiles in our first ‘mediation’ session, using the data to consider what motivational DNA drives their behaviors and what drains them. After two months, these two leaders are now… Read more »