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A five-way approach to managing workplace conflict.

Updated: Aug 31, 2021

Conflict in the workplace is usually thought of as being a negative thing, but it does not always have to be. Healthy conflict allows for more creativity, stronger ideas and more engaged employees. In fact, you need human interactions, conflicts, arguments, and debates to generate new ideas. As an organisation you need to be sure it does not get out of hand and it remains healthy.

In the famous 2016 paper, authors Toegel and Barsoux outlined a novel framework to handling workplace conflict that is both proactive and insightful. The thrust of the framework is a focus on having meaningful, honest conversations about the perceived conflict in relation to the following five sections:

  1. First impressions

  2. Behaviour

  3. Communication style

  4. Thought processes

  5. Feelings

Let the team know that a structured and facilitated conversation will take place. Focus on the areas below.

First impressions

We can’t help being influenced by visual cues like dress and the way people move and speak, because the process is subconscious. But sharing assumptions allows colleagues to distinguish between truth and misconception. The goal is to make team members consider how they portray themselves to others in the team.

Example: In your world, what do you notice first about someone’s appearance?


Sometimes cultural behavioural norms clash, while other times people misunderstand one another’s personal boundaries. The conclusions we draw from these kind of misunderstandings are what frequently fuel conflict inside and between teams, especially when those teams are multinational.

Example: In your world, is it okay to turn up to a client meeting 10 minutes late?

Communication style

What people say and how they say it are one thing – what they mean may be another. How well does your team understand the implications of the language they use? The word “yes” might be taken as confirmation that a certain task will be completed, but the person who said it might have thought they were conveying an intention, not a promise, to get the work done.

Example: In your world, would you be upset if everybody spoke highly of a work outing but you never received an invite?

Thought processes

To encourage deep reflection on their own work and how others may perceive your own work. Find out how your people think and make the most of their approach to problems and decision-making.

Example: In your world, should we focus on failure significantly?


Extremes of emotion, either positive or negative can be overpowering for people on the receiving end.

Talking about feelings is a sensitive topic, so tread carefully. Begin the discussion by introducing a familiar scenario to team members to explore and identify the way group members can disagree productively.

Example: In your world, how do you show your assertiveness?

The five-stage process is a vehicle for team members to get to know and understand each other, and to set appropriate strategies and boundaries that everyone can agree on.


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