Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 1, Issue 15;   April 11, 2001: The Focus of Conflict

The Focus of Conflict

by

For some teams conflict seems to focus around one particular team member. The conflict might manifest itself as either organizational or interpersonal issues, or both, but whatever the problem seems to be, the problem is never the problem.

Jill heard a knock at the door. "Come in," she called. It was Troy, and he looked upset. If he felt like he looked, this would be his second "upset" visit in two days. Jill blanked her screen, turned to face Troy, motioned to the chair in front of her desk and said, "Please."

A MetronomeTroy sat. "I'm done," he said. "I'm here to let you know that I've requested reassignment."

Jill had been optimistic at first — Metro­nome was her team's second project together and Daffodil had been very successful. Well, almost. With hindsight, Jill could see that Rachel and Troy had had some bumps over Daffodil. Now Metro­nome was becoming a disaster.

Jill had tried everything. She'd worked with Rachel alone, and with Rachel and each of the three others who'd had difficulty with her. Finally she had referred the whole mess up to HR. Nothing worked. Jill wanted to keep Rachel, because she understood the driver software, but not if it meant losing everyone else.

Ironically, Jill's solutions would all lead to the same outcome, because Rachel isn't the problem. For reasons unknown to Jill, transferring Rachel to another team would only create an unfilled conflict role that someone else would then fill. Here's why.

Early in Daffodil, Troy and Jim had been "at war." Jill had separated them by assigning Troy some work that Rachel wanted, but had never asked for, and assigning Rachel some work she hated, but had never objected to. Since Jill stuck with those assignments for Metronome, Rachel had been fuming privately for months. Now she was always irritable, regularly lashing out.

Rachel had placated — she hadn't expressed her discomfort to Jill. Troy and Jim had coped by blaming each other, and Jill had found a super-reasonable "peace" rather than working through everyone's issues, which continued to simmer. Rachel became the focus of the conflict, though she actually contributed only a small piece.

The focus of conflict
is often a role —
it can be filled
by anyone
Rachel became the identified patient — the one who exhibited symptoms of pain that was caused by imbalance in the overall system. The team saw the problem as belonging to Rachel, even though four people played roles in creating and maintaining the problem.

Most group interpersonal conflict follows similar patterns. People who seem to be central — especially the identified patient — might only be peripheral to the conflict. People who seem to be peripheral or even helpful can actually be responsible, in part, for igniting and maintaining the conflict.

Eventually, it all came apart for Jill's team. Rachel was reassigned, at great cost to her, to the team, and to Metronome. Jim and Troy were again working more closely together, and resumed their war. Jill was back to Square One — but now Metronome was late.

If you're inside the system, you probably can't tell what's really happening. Seeking outside assistance — from someone with a detached perspective, and the right skills — is your best hope. And the earlier you do it, the easier it will be. Go to top Top  Next issue: The Triangulation Zone  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

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When a questioner repeatedly attacks someone within seconds of their starting to reply, complaining to management about a pattern of abuse can work — if management understands abuse, and if management wants deal with it. What if management is no help?
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Preventing toxic conflict is a whole lot better than trying to untangle it once it starts. But to prevent toxic conflict, we must understand some basics of conflict, and why untangling toxic conflict can be so difficult.

See also Conflict Management for more related articles.

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In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end. Available here and by RSS on July 5.

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