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Rationally, we can all differentiate between a sabre-tooth tiger and a ‘difficult’ coworker.

The problem is that our amygdala – our primordial, so-called ‘lizard brain’ – cannot always do the same.

So, when faced with workplace disagreements, we react in the same way we might to an ancient predator lying in ambush.

This phenomenon is referred to in psychology as an ‘amygdala hijack’ and put simply, is when our fight-or-flight response is triggered despite there being no serious threat. The modern manifestation of ‘fight or flight’? Raised voices and heated tempers, or even walking away. Whilst we can never truly beat this unconscious reaction, we can certainly manage it more effectively through the use of depersonalised language and an enhanced understanding of ourselves and others.

Managing difficult relationships is key to ensuring team success, but it is rarely as simple as it sounds in practice. Tuckman’s model of group development can help us recognise the importance of conflict in the natural progression of a team’s life cycle. As teams navigate the tumultuous ‘storming’ stage, in particular, conflict is not only inevitable, it is necessary – but only when it is approached in a positive, constructive way.

The perils of total conflict avoidance

It is crucial to bear in mind that we should only ever seek to manage conflict, not correct or eliminate it completely. The pursuit of harmony and avoidance of disputes is a perfectly natural human desire, but – in extreme cases – can be detrimental to business.

The propensity of some managers to hire people who think like them or fit the established ‘way of doing things’, can inadvertently create an echo chamber where diverse thinking and ideas are non-existent. This could be unintentional affinity bias or perhaps a deliberate attempt to pre-emptively avoid difficulty by stacking the team with like-minded thinkers who won’t rock the boat.

This phenomenon can be understood as hiring ‘culture fits’, as opposed to ‘culture adds’, which is when diverse behavioural styles are purposefully sought out. A lack of behavioural diversity in a team may result in a temporarily conflict-free environment, but in the long term, a dearth of innovation is likely to result in organisational stagnation.


In a competitive market, stagnation can spell doom for small business or start-ups navigating complex, fast-paced industry environments. The most successful teams and organisations actively seek to cultivate healthy debate and challenge ideas during decision-making processes, by hiring ‘culture adds’, or through the implementation of practical tools and strategies.

The aviation industry, for example, uses a system called Crew Resource Management (CRM) which trains leaders to invite feedback, ideas and challenges to their own decision-making from the crew, regardless of rank or experience. Throughout multiple aviation case studies, it was found that owing to factors such as obedience to authority, ‘groupthink’ and a desire to please, team members who could have contributed useful safety information in emergency situations sometimes failed to do so. CRM is an acknowledgement of the need to challenge ideas and invite constructive disagreements, no matter how conflict adverse or in consensus the team may be.

Constructive conflict through well-managed working relationships

Harvard Business Review (HBR) found that “clashes between parties are the crucibles in which creative solutions are developed and wise trade-offs among competing objectives are made”.

For teams to transition out of the initial ‘honeymoon phase’ of development, functional conflict is crucial for the progression of considered, robust solutions to complex issues.

In order to cultivate positive disagreement, however, we need to train ourselves to override the primordial part of our brains and differentiate between the sabre-tooth tiger, and the co-worker disagreeing with us.

We can help achieve this through depersonalised language and an enhanced understanding of ourselves and others, in a psychologically safe environment.

Depersonalised language – The use of a task-focused language that addresses difficult relationships in clear and professional terms allows for open communication between disagreeing parties.

To avoid misunderstandings, state the rules of engagement. Structure critical discussion to ensure that everyone is on the same page and understands where disagreements lie, and where common ground might be found.

Removing emotion and approaching disagreements as a structured process through common language can help rein in our primordial brains in heated situations.

Understand yourself, and your team – When we understand our behavioural tendencies (and how they differ from those of our coworkers), differences in opinion can be more effectively identified and addressed.

Self-awareness can be a deceptively difficult barrier to overcome, however. Research by HBR suggests that, despite 95 percent of us thinking we are self-aware, only 15 percent truly are.

We therefore need to remain cognisant of the behaviours we project in the workplace and how they are perceived by others, something which is effectively revealed by Belbin Observer Assessments.

A contribution we may see as constructive or innocuous could be taken very differently by a coworker with different behavioural tendencies, who may instead inadvertently treat our actions as a perceived ‘threat’.

When we understand our human propensities through practical tools such as Belbin, we can adapt our style to best suit the situation and elicit far more constructive debate and conflict at work.

Walk the talk

The aforementioned strategies cannot exist in a vacuum, and it isn’t enough simply to state that differences in opinion are welcome.

Teams need to practise what they preach and cultivate psychologically-safe environments to empower people to make difficult contributions and engage in constructive conflict.

Embracing behavioural diversity in your team and understanding your preferred working styles and those of your co-workers, is an effective way to manage ‘difficult’ relationships. It helps us to train our brains to see those ‘sabre-tooth tigers’ at work for what they really are – opportunities to learn and collaborate more effectively.


Fenlan Miller, 2023.



Read more about managing difficult working relationships using Belbin here.



(First published as a guest blog for the Small Business Charter.)


Conflict Difficult Working Relationships Psychological safety Communication