The Runaway Train of Conflict

Can it be stopped?

Posted Jan 08, 2020

As we write this, the world waits for what might or might not happen next in the conflict between Iran and the US. Not surprisingly, Iran sent several missiles to US military bases in Iraq as a response to the US-sanctioned killing of Iran’s General Soleimani. Apparently, this person was comparable to the Director of the CIA, Secretary of Defense and Vice-President all rolled into one. This is significant stuff that no one expects to end soon.

The escalation we are seeing now in Iran is typical of conflicts—they escalate. In many situations, it seems that conflict can spiral out of control. Yet conflict management researchers have demonstrated that there are ways and approaches to de-escalating or even stopping conflict. The catch is, this same research indicates it takes a lot of guts/strength and conviction to go down this road as people naturally reciprocate negativity with more negativity.

Conflict exists when the behavior of others is perceived to interfere, obstruct or get in the way of your aims, whether the aims are about the control of resources or maintaining a positive view of the self, holding shared/socially validated beliefs or some combination thereof. 

Despite the strain that people often feel when they are in conflict, conflict can be an opportunity for growth and development. Big, long conflicts can be managed and even resolved. Think about the history of civil rights which resulted in landmark legislation in the 1960s. We had a history of institutionalized racism and segregation and it took learning by all parties to affect real change.

When parties communicate their different points of view, they can learn from each other and together they can conceive of new ways to deal with their disagreement; with Martin Luther King Jr. day coming up, it is instructive to think about MLK and President Johnson talking to each other about how to advance civil rights.

Conflict can thus identify problems that, if resolved, can improve the way people work together, which may improve the entire group, organization or even nation.

The challenge is that the information and the strain of conflict emerge together, and over time they affect each other.

The behaviors of people are not forgotten, and they affect the way we see them going forward.

Animosity emerges when people seem to obstruct each other, and this can erode their relationships. History carries forward and makes working together to resolve conflict difficult.

Sometimes the animosity can feed on itself and spiral out of control more quickly, and this can get serious—which brings us back to Iran.

In a recent article published in Academy of Management Annals which one of us wrote with Matt Cronin of George Mason University, we offered a framework wherein the good, the bad, and the ugly of conflict all operate together over time.

A fundamental question about conflict: What makes it functional or not?

After reviewing over 193 articles, representing the most current approaches in conflict research, we found that scholars have examined lots of factors that affect the functionality of conflict. It’s kind of a mess, and the research as a whole is missing a critical component: how conflict changes over time.

Yet, conflict is a dynamic system. To be dynamic means that conflict itself causes the conflict to change. The actions of the present (like threatening to bomb Iranian cultural sites) can have future repercussions that are unintended.

Further, as parties attempt to manage conflict, its nature changes. Issues are resolved and new issues emerge. While there is no evidence at this point, the crash of a commercial airliner in Iran does inevitably make people wonder if there is a connection, it being so close to the bombings and other events. This transforms the conflict both within and across levels. It can spread to other group members and force individuals to take sides.

But the good news is there is a way to better manage conflict.

To understand better conflict management, one could start by imagining the conflict system like an engine that produces heat. Some of that heat will be turned into useful kinetic energy (information and learning), while some will be damaging and produce wear and tear on the parts (i.e., Negative Affect).

In response to negativity, one could offer a positive response. In global conflicts, an example would be to increase humanitarian help to people in need. What is remarkable about this approach is that it has been around thousands of years, at least in theory. The biblical phrase “turn the other cheek” comes to mind.

Yet, this approach to conflict management goes beyond passively taking an attack by others and involves contributing positively. If one really wants a conflict to be resolved, that’s what research indicates is the most likely path.

The best part is while we can’t affect how our political leaders respond to conflict, we can apply this approach in just about any aspect of life. Here’s to less (or at least de-escalated) conflict!

Written by Katerina Bezrukova and Chester Spell


Cronin, M. & Bezrukova, K. (2019). Conflict Management Through the Lens of System Dynamics. Academy of Management Annals, 13(2), 770-806.