Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 40;   October 7, 2015: Contextual Causes of Conflict: Part I

Contextual Causes of Conflict: Part I

by

When destructive conflict erupts, we usually hold responsible only the people directly involved. But the choices of others, and general circumstances, can be the real causes of destructive conflict.
Bull moose sparring in Grand Teton National Park

Bull moose antler sparring in Grand Teton National Park to determine breeding rights. This is a common occurrence when the bull moose are in rut. The configurations of antlers vary from bull to bull, but most configurations are such that the bulls can easily disengage once locked. From time to time, though, two bulls can actually lock antlers in a way in which they cannot disengage, and that event can lead to the deaths of both. In this way, conflict — which does serve a purpose from the perspective of species fitness — can lead to losses that harm the species.

So it is with destructive conflict in organizations. Constructive conflict does serve a purpose, but when it changes from a constructive form to a destructive form, it harms the organization. Organizational culture and policies that elevate the likelihood of constructive conflict turning destructive are counter-effective.

Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

Destructive conflict can arise from a vast array of sources — innocent misunderstandings, campaigns to advance one's own career or destroy another's, spontaneous attacks, or acts of revenge. Destructive conflict can be inadvertently awkward or it can be intensely and permanently damaging. Rarely does it advance the work of the organization. At best, it enables temporary progress; at worst, it can permanently move a team so far from its objective that success is attainable only by redefining the objective.

Where destructive conflicts are common, their root causes likely lie in the organizational culture or the organization's leaders' approaches to shaping that culture. Here is Part I of a sampling of possible organizational roots of destructive conflict.

Prevalence of virtual teams
According to psychologist John Suler, a contributing cause of destructive conflict in the virtual environment is the online disinhibition effect. Briefly, virtual environments inherently weaken inhibitions that limit socially offensive behavior. (See "Toxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Dissociative Anonymity," Point Lookout for April 3, 2013) It's also possible that frequent exposure to the virtual environment has lingering effects on our behavior in the face-to-face environment.
Because the virtual environment is here to stay, we'll eventually learn how to use it responsibly. But even now, the outlines of a solution are clear: we can operate safely in virtual environments when we use them in conjunction with regular face-to-face contact. Compared to people who interact solely by virtual means, people who know each other well might be less likely to commit the social errors enabled by the online disinhibition effect. And when they do commit such errors, their relationships can provide the resources needed to make repairs quickly.
Recent losses
The phenomenon of Because the virtual environment
is here to stay, we'll eventually
learn how to use it responsibly
loss aversion,http://c4i.co/zu is our tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains of similar value. Having recently sustained losses can sometimes enhance this effect. For example, losses in organizational responsibility or power, as might occur in reorganization, can cause us to resist further losses more strongly than might be objectively justifiable, which can lead to intensified conflict.
Loss aversion relates to all kinds of losses. For example, after a reorg, people who were close friends might no longer be able to socialize because of changes in office assignments or scheduling. In response to this loss of social contact, they might feel isolated, and their behavior with respect to managing conflicts can change.
Disempowerment
When people feel helpless to address troubling organizational issues, they can experience stress and feelings of frustration. In a phenomenon known as ego depletion, the reserves of energy they need to accommodate each other's failings can be exhausted. (See "Ego Depletion: An Introduction," Point Lookout for November 20, 2013) On edge, a group of people in such a state can be unstable enough to support frequent destructive conflicts.
Evidence of steady progress in addressing as-yet-unresolved organizational challenges can help people manage their frustrations about those challenges.

We'll continue next time with our exploration of organizational causes of destructive conflict, focusing on performance management, politics, and change. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Contextual Causes of Conflict: Part II  Next Issue

For more on Suler's work, visit his Web site.

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!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenFhMnhkVOFAqqxVrtner@ChacCZSqoCfqkxENsxxZoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

The Gatun Locks of the Panama CanalThe Power of Situational Momentum
For many of us, the typical workday presents a series of opportunities to take action. We often approach these situations by choosing among the expected choices. But usually there are choices that exploit situational momentum, and they can be powerful choices indeed.
George III, King of Great Britain and King of Ireland, 1738-1820What Is Workplace Bullying?
We're gradually becoming aware that workplace bullying is a significant deviant pattern in workplace relationships. To deal effectively with it, we must know how to recognize it. Here's a start.
A mixed stand of aspen and pine in the Okanagan region of British Columbia and Washington stateHow Workplace Bullies Use OODA: Part I
Workplace bullies who succeed in carrying on their activities over a long period of time rely on more than mere intimidation to escape prosecution. They proactively shape their environments to make them safe for bullying. The OODA model gives us insights into how they accomplish this.
Brendan Nyhan and Jason ReiflerHistorical Debates at Work
One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates.
BoredCompulsive Talkers at Work: Peers I
Our exploration of approaches for dealing with compulsive talkers now continues, with Part I of a set of suggestions for what to do when a peer interferes with your work by talking compulsively.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A vizsla in a pose called the play bowComing April 26: Why Dogs Make the Best Teammates
Dogs make great teammates. It's in their constitutions. We can learn a lot from dogs about being good teammates. Available here and by RSS on April 26.
A business meetingAnd on May 3: Start the Meeting with a Check-In
Check-ins give meeting attendees a chance to express satisfaction or surface concerns about how things are going. They're a valuable aid to groups that want to stay on course, or get back on course when needed. Available here and by RSS on May 3.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenTdAZLGoqabSWeoyxner@ChacBUzTBbWwSLlPOHGCoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.