Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 12;   March 25, 2015: Creating Toxic Conflict: I

Creating Toxic Conflict: I

by

Many managers seem to operate as if their primary goal is to create toxic conflict among their subordinates. Here's a collection of methods for sowing toxic conflict that can help bad managers become worse managers.
The flagship store of the Market Basket supermarket chain

The flagship store of the Market Basket supermarket chain, in Chelsea, Massachusetts. The privately held chain, which serves Eastern New England, was embroiled in a decades-long family feud between the descendants of Telemachus DeMoulas and George DeMoulas, who had purchased the business from their father in 1954. The two brothers each owned 50% of the business, and the arrangement worked well. But when ownership passed to their survivors, trouble began. The first lawsuit was filed in 1990, setting off a chain of hostile legal actions that finally ended on August 27, 2014, following a strike by most employees in support of the re-hiring of the then-recently-fired President of the company, Arthur T. DeMoulas, son of Telemachus. The final settlement was achieved when Arthur T.'s buyout offer was accepted by the opposing side of the family. More about the history of Market Basket

This tale is a family tragedy, of course. One cannot know for certain, but one possible cause is the 50/50 ownership structure the DeMoulas brothers created. It is one form of the technique of having "overlapping or ambiguous job descriptions" listed in this essay.

Working for a bad manager is frustrating, but working for a truly bad manager drives you absolutely insane. Almost daily, truly bad managers shock their subordinates with unexpectedly breathtaking examples of incompetence, stupidity, and malice. Being a truly bad manager requires energy, devotion, and limitless creativity. Managers aspiring to be truly bad need a comprehensive resource of tools and techniques for driving subordinates insane.

This short essay can't possibly be a comprehensive resource, but it does outline methods for achieving one of the truly bad manager's strategic objectives: creating toxic conflict. Here is Part I of a catalog of techniques for setting subordinates against one another, written as advice for the truly bad manager.

Have overlapping or ambiguous job descriptions
Ensure that the job descriptions of subordinates are written explicitly enough or ambiguously enough that several of them can be read so as to cover some of the same responsibilities. For extra zing, overlap those responsibilities that are most valued, and most likely to be regarded as bases for self-esteem or career advancement.
Set ambiguous, immeasurable performance objectives
To motivate your subordinates to do whatever they can to destroy each other, you want them to be anxious about their own performance. In performance reviews, set objectives that are unclear, ambiguous, and immeasurable. If they also aren't achievable, so much the better.
Play favorites
Show favoritism in making assignments, allocating resources, and distributing credit and praise. Be consistent about confiding in some people, and not others. If you have a small circle of favorites, those outside it will quickly learn to resent those inside it.
Communicate ineffectively
Whenever you communicate anything important, do it ineffectively, and hurriedly depart for an important meeting, off-site, or vacation. Leave them wondering what you really meant. Let them argue it out amongst themselves.
Use harassment, blaming, and scapegoating…judiciously
Repeatedly harassing, blaming, and scapegoating a few specific individuals provides a means of shifting responsibility for failures from yourself or from your favorites onto a few people. Their careers are already in ruins, so it does them no real harm. But it does provide a pattern for other subordinates to use when they need to evade responsibility.
Deny having made previous commitments
When someone Being a truly bad manager
requires energy, devotion,
and limitless creativity
claims that you agreed to do or not do something, and you later didn't do or did do it, deny having agreed to do or not do it. Claim confidently that you thought you were just discussing doing or not doing it. And make sure one of your favorites backs you up.
Overload some people and underload others
Distribute work unevenly. Make sure some people have to work, well, not 24/7, but maybe 19/6 or something like that, while others can just kick back. Keep stress levels at maximum.

We'll continue next time with many more ideas for creating toxic conflict. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Creating Toxic Conflict: II  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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Toxic conflict in teams disrupts relationships and interferes with (or prevents) accomplishment of the team's goals. It's difficult enough to manage toxic conflict in co-located teams, but in virtual teams, dissociative anonymity causes toxic conflict to be both more easily triggered and more difficult to resolve.
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Many books and Web sites offer advice for dealing with difficult people. There are indeed some difficult people, but are they as numerous as these books and Web sites would have us believe? I think not.

See also Conflict Management and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

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The Knowledge One-Upmanship Game is a pattern of group behavior in the form of a contest to determine which player knows the most arcane fact. It can seem like innocent fun, but it can disrupt a team's ability to collaborate. Available here and by RSS on June 7.

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