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At Work, Our Mental Models of Conflict Matter

International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution

The way we think about conflict matters. These “mental models” of conflict influence the strategies we employ when we are engaged in conflict. Our models are influenced by our personality, life experiences, and general orientation to the world around us. In turn, they impact how others will react to us, influencing the likelihood of reaching more or less constructive outcomes. In short, we incorporate our personal characteristics and understandings of the world around us into our mental model of conflict, which influences what we do when conflicts occur. While this seems reasonable, a recent study is the first that attempts to empirically test these assumptions as a whole.

In this study, focusing on conflict in organizations, the authors aimed to first explore the personality characteristics that are related to holding a mental model of conflict where the best outcomes result from a cooperative (win-win) approach, rather than a competitive (win-lose) approach. More specifically, one holds a cooperative mental model when they believe that the best outcome in a conflict will occur when both parties behave cooperatively. Alternatively, when one holds a competitive mental model, they believe that the best outcome to a conflict will occur when they behave competitively while the other party holds a more cooperative orientation. In comparing these two models, the authors found that individuals with cooperative mental models tend to be more honest and humble, agreeable, open to new experiences, conscientious, less emotional, and have a higher concern for others.

Next, the authors explored how holding a more cooperative mental model influences conflict outcomes, and found that individuals with cooperative mental models tend to experience less conflict with teammates over the task at hand, and fewer personal conflicts with other team members. Additionally, and more specifically, they tend to experience less abuse from supervisors, lower hostility from co-workers, and are overall less likely to feel ostracized in the workplace.

Interestingly, the authors also examined how others react to individuals that hold a more cooperative or competitive mental model. When a hypothetical person was portrayed as holding a cooperative mental model of conflict, this person was judged by participants to be less aggressive and self-interested than those holding a competitive mental model. Additionally, these participants indicated they would expect less personal conflict and would be less likely to be hostile toward someone who holds a more cooperative mental model.

In practice, these findings may be helpful to consultants and coaches intervening in particularly difficult conflict situations. For example, a coach, understanding both the personality traits associated with particular mental models of conflict, as well as the conflict outcomes that are likely to result from holding certain mental models, can recognize less constructive tendencies in organization members, and intervene in ways that may improve the probabilities that future conflicts will be resolved more constructively.


Halevy, N., Cohen, T. R., Chou, E. Y., Katz, J. J., & Panter, A. T. (2014). Mental models at work: Cognitive causes and consequences of conflict in organizations. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(1), 92-110.


Nick Redding

Nick Redding is a doctoral student in the Social-Organizational Psychology department at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a Project Coordinator for the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity (AC4) at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. Before coming to Columbia, he spent two years living in South Africa as a U.S.… MORE >

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