This past spring, we gathered agency friends and marketing leaders in New York City to talk about conflict. Either our guests were genuinely interested in the topic, or they just really wanted to try the pastries at the Harvard Club, but whatever their motivation was for joining us at 9am, the room was buzzing with energy. 

Why bring people together before working hours to talk about a topic we all usually try to avoid? As a digital agency, we’re always working toward embracing digital savvy and bringing strategic ideas to the brands and non-profits we partner with. 

Our teams set out to understand what makes our clients tick, the goals and priorities of each department, and how everyone’s efforts ladder up to supporting the overall mission. It comes as no surprise that on the way to delivering on our mission, there might be some disagreements or clashes. We knew it wasn’t unique to our company and that conflict could arise in any industry–including the non-profit space. 

We thought it was an important discussion many industries would benefit from, so we created a brave space to have this conversation and invited an expert to show us the way through conflict. Welcome, Amy Gallo — a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review and author of HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict. We hosted Amy at this event to educate us all on why we should welcome tough conversations in our businesses. 

We came to understand the effects of “amygdala hijack,” or the “fight or flight” response that happens when we’re faced with a conflict. During amygdala hijack, our brains don’t recognize the difference between a rattlesnake on the trail and a colleague objecting to your proposed timeline in front of the entire team.

Amy identified the types of conflict and gave her best advice for how to prepare for a difficult conversation to combat the effects of that amygdala hijack moment. As the hosts of the event, our agency gave every guest two copies of Amy’s book: one for themselves … and one for the colleague who needs it most. (Sources say they’ve seen the books on clients desks throughout their offices, so we’d say the mission was a success.)

Through all of the insightful information and discussions, there were four key takeaways about why it is essential for non-profit leadersor anyone who wants to create a collaborative, innovative environmentto embrace conflict and to learn how to manage it well. 

  1.       You cannot have a diverse team if healthy conflict is not welcomed and encouraged. If people with different point of views are not in the room and empowered to speak up, you will likely end up where you’ve always been, or worsemiss out on great new ideas. 
  1.       Leaders must prime their teams to disagree. You’ll have both conflict avoiders and conflict seekers in your group, and it’s leadership’s role to bring those two sides together to get the best out of everyone. 
  1.       Your team will handle conflict the way you do. It’s imperative that leaders learn to manage their response to conflict so that we can model positive behaviors. 
  1.       When you’re entering a conflict, or find yourself suddenly in the middle of one, be open to changing your mind. For me, this manifests as approaching difficult conversations with a sense of curiosity; what does this person know that I don’t know? What information can help both of us understand the way forward? 

Most importantly, we learned that by effectively harnessing the positive power of conflict, we could elevate the causes we so passionately support and authentically represent the values of diversity, innovation, and community.

Conflict is an inevitable part of our daily lives, but we now know that the best ideas and solutions can often be the result of challenging situations. It takes bravery and vulnerability to get through these conversations, but by bringing our best selves to these conversations (and encouraging others to do the same) our organizations and teams will be better for it.



Katryn Geane

Director of Client Services


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