The Stages of Escalation to Intractable Conflict in the Workplace

Just as it is important to understand what fuels conflict and dispute, it is equally as important to understand how far a conflict and dispute can escalate and what some consequences may be. In those disputes that cannot be resolved, it becomes apparent that the conflict may have grown through stages of escalation to a state of intractability.

In this post, we will explore the theory behind the point of no return in conflict situations.


Terrell Northrup’s (1989) theory of intractable conflict and the stages of escalation explains that conflict occurs over time and becomes increasingly resistant to resolution attempts.

Intractable conflicts become prevalent when there is poor communication between the parties, alignment and cohesion with the positions of the parties, hostility and aggression between the parties and conflict is accepted to be the norm and is sensationalized by the parties (Northrup, 1989).

Stages of Escalation

The ‘stages of escalation’ (Northrup, 1989) is comprised of four stages that include:

  1. a threat to identity,
  2. distortion,
  3. rigidification, and
  4. collusion.

Cartoon of escalator with arrow pointing upward

Threat to Identity

Within Northrup’s theory, identity is defined as how parties see themselves in relation to the rest of the world. Perceived appropriate attributes related to values, attitudes and behaviours are shared among and between members of a social group that resonates predictability (Northrup, 1989).

As previously discussed in‘Helping Leaders Uncover the Sources of Conflict’, with the irreconcilable needs and interests of parties in dispute, the irreconcilability fuels conflict to become closer to intractability.

When parties engage in behaviours associated with rallying support in view of the another’s differing perspectives it becomes apparent that the opposing view proves the existence of a threat and subsequently, the need for the protection of identity or how to be perceived by others.

The assumed threat of identity would characterize the first stage of Northrup’s stages of escalation.


Word image showing distortion

A common response to a threat is defensiveness. This behaviour becomes prevalent when parties in disputes share and restate their points of view and positions. It is also prevalent when parties share their needs and interests.

This can be perceived, based on Northrup’s theory, as rallying support, which contributes to the escalation of conflict.

Through continued distortion and ultimate escalation of the conflict, the parties begin to establish an “us” versus “them” perspective which aids the parties in differentiating and emphasizing who is in their group and who is out of their group.

Parties who are engaged in intractable conflict, typically rely on a social identity of what is right and just. Northrup’s (1989) explanation of ‘social identity’ is that it is:

an abiding sense of the self and the relationship of the self to the world. It is a system of beliefs or a way of construing the world that makes life predictable rather than random. It is more a psychological sense of self, but encompasses a sense of self in relation to the world, that is, a social component. (Fisher, 2007).

More specifically, and for the purpose of conflict analysis for conflict management and dispute resolution, Tajfel and Turner’s (1979) explanation of social identity in relation to the self is most thoroughly defined as:

a person has not one, “personal self”, but rather several selves that correspond to widening circles of group membership. Different social contexts may trigger an individual to think, feel and act on basis of his personal, family or national “level of self” (Turner et al, 1987). Apart from the “level of self”, an individual has multiple “social identities”. Social identity is the individual’s self-concept derived from perceived membership of social groups (Hogg & Vaughan, 2002). In other words, it is an individual-based perception of what defines the “us” associated with any internalized group membership. (Haslam, 2001)

Fisher (2007) further defines Tajfel and Turner’s (1979) concept of social identity as:

part of an individual’s self concept which derives from their knowledge of their membership in a social group together with the value and emotional significance of that membership. The cognitive component is the categorization of the self into particular groups and the affect component is the positive or negative valence attached to group membership. (Fisher, 2007, Class Notes)


The application of this concept becomes evident in conflict and disputes when parties rally support, gather evidence and supporting information to establish their grounds for their position in a dispute.

This is done both subtly and overtly throughout the escalation of the conflict and is considered to be the third stage of escalation of intractable conflict when parties become rigid in both their thinking and their actions.


The final stage of conflict escalation to intractability occurs when individuals and groups see the conflict as necessary for the survival of their identity and continue to reiterate their values and their perspectives in hopes of the other side seeing and accepting their point of view.

This is when each group defines their identity by “who they are not” (Northrup, 1989) and the ‘conflict becomes ritualized and celebrated through a complete lack of communication or interest in resolution, and continued escalation of intensity and attack.

We have seen this being demonstrated in countries where leaders have participated in peace talks with “the enemy”. ’ (Northrup, 1989)


Understanding how conflict escalates to intractability provides those engaged in conflict management and dispute resolution with an opportunity to apply the best methods available for resolution.

Thank you for reading my post.

Until next time,


Keep Your Conversations Forward Moving

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Fisher, R.J. (2001). Social-psychological processes in interactive conflict analysis and reconciliation, in M. Abu-Nimer (Ed.). Reconciliation, justice and coexistence: Theory and practice, Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books.

Northrup, Terrell A. The dynamic of identity in personal and social conflict. Kriesberg, L., Northrup, T. A., Thorson, S. J. (Eds.) (1989). Intractable conflicts and their transformation. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. The Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations, 33, 47.

About The Author

Suzanne Marie

Living life to its fullest. Building mighty communities through connection, belonging, security, and love. I am founder and CEO at Peak Conflict Solutions and my purpose in life is to show your workplace how to set the tone for connection, belonging, and security while creating space for conflict management.