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

Contextual Causes of Conflict: 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,https://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: 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!

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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In some meetings, we collaborate not in reaching objectives, but in preventing our doing so. Here are three examples of this pattern. Available here and by RSS on September 27.
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Sometimes meetings are less effective than they might be because of cultural factors that are outside our awareness. Here are some examples. Available here and by RSS on October 4.

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