Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 49;   December 9, 2015: Clearing Conflict Fog

Clearing Conflict Fog

by

At times, groups can become so embroiled in destructive conflict that conventional conflict resolution becomes ineffective. How does this happen? What can we do about it?
Fog offshore near Cabrillo National Monument, California

Fog rolls in at Cabrillo National Monument, on Point Loma, near San Diego, California. A fairly regular occurrence, especially in winter, it is the result of the collision of warm air from the land meeting colder air coming in from the ocean.

Widespread conflict throughout a group might have analogous causes. Rather than viewing widespread conflict as personal — as an unfortunate result of having too many "prima donnas" or too many socially inept people floating around — we might consider the possibility that some other less personal force might be at work. Some examples: perhaps people are being asked to do too much, or working conditions might be oppressive, or the facility is too crowded, or management might be abusive. Think hard.

Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

Resolving destructive conflict with dispatch is a valuable practice for at least two reasons. First, destructive conflict substantially degrades group productivity. Second, destructive conflict can become so toxic that it can permanently damage interpersonal relationships. Conventional approaches to resolving such conflicts usually entail private conversations (or sometimes a series of private conversations) with the parties to the conflict, in which we air grievances and devise approaches that address those grievances.

Sometimes, though, conventional conflict resolution fails, because so many group members are engaged in so many destructive conflicts that the conflicts interact. When that happens, resolving any one conflict has little lasting effect. Moreover, when the parties to that resolved conflict return to the group environment, they can become entangled in other conflicts, which can disrupt the resolution they just recently achieved.

When destructive conflict becomes widespread enough, it can "repair" itself — it can undo whatever we do to resolve it. Clearing it is like trying to clear the air of fog. You can blow the fog away in one place, but fog from adjacent spaces quickly fills the cleared space.

Groups enmeshed in widespread destructive conflict aren't experiencing multiple conflicts. They're experiencing one conflict fog.

Resolving conflict fog can be so frustrating that managers sometimes resort to transfer, termination, or reorganization. But there is another approach that can be attempted before employing more drastic measures.

Since conflict fog is group-wide, deal with it as such. Instead of addressing each conflict separately and privately, assemble the entire group for a day (or more) of Instead of addressing each conflict
separately and privately, assemble
the entire group for a day
(or more) of conflict resolution
conflict resolution. Deal with each conflict openly, letting the entire group participate in each conflict resolution exercise. This can be effective because it exploits four phenomena.

Suspension of aggravating events
Halting (or at least minimizing) routine work attenuates the stream of aggravating events that has been feeding ongoing conflict. This can prevent the conflicts from becoming more complex while we're working on them.
Normalization of flexibility
Working with the parties to any given conflict changes the configuration of that conflict. With the rest of the group observing, the parties to the conflict adopt new stances, and make commitments to approach things differently. This change in posture makes it easier for others to change their postures. It normalizes flexibility.
Group-wide disclosure of perspectives
As we work with the parties to one conflict, they disclose their perspectives and feelings in ways they might not have done previously. The entire group learns about how the parties experienced the incidents of the conflict. Understanding and insight propagate.
Near-simultaneity of resolution of interlocking conflicts
Conventional one-at-a-time conflict resolution rests on the assumptions that conflicts are independent of each other, and that privacy enables fuller disclosure. But in conflict fog, working through any one conflict "in public" often aids progress in other conflicts.

Conflict fog is fundamentally different from more isolated forms of destructive conflict. That difference is what makes treating it as a single entity so much more effective. Go to top Top  Next issue: Wishful Significance: I  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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See also Conflict Management and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

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