Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 17, Issue 6;   February 8, 2017: Toxic Conflict in Teams: Attacks

Toxic Conflict in Teams: Attacks


In toxic conflict, people try to resolve their differences by eliminating each other's ability to provide opposition. In the early stages of toxic conflict, the attacks often escape notice. Here's a catalog of covert attack tactics.
The FBI wanted poster for Evgeniy Mikhailovich Bogachev, a Russian cyber criminal

The FBI wanted poster for Evgeniy Mikhailovich Bogachev, a Russian cyber criminal alleged to have been associated with creating the Gameover ZeuS botnet, which used encrypted communications between its control servers and its nodes, making it much more difficult for law enforcement to shut down. It was temporarily terminated in June, 2014. According to the FBI, "Bogachev and his cybercriminal associates are responsible for the theft of over $100 million from U.S. financial institutions, Fortune 500 firms, universities, and government agencies."

Modern cyber attacks are always covert in nature. Consequently, officials rarely uncover them until after damage has reached significant scales. So it is with covert attacks in teams of knowledge workers. Team leaders and management would do well to elevate their attack detection skills.

Violent conflict is rare in teams of knowledge workers. Because most organizations have policies about violence, officials intervene effectively, and violent conflict quickly leads to disciplinary or legal action and possible termination. Toxic conflict, or non-violent destructive conflict (NDC), is more common. More common it may be, but more manageable it is not. Because few organizations have effective policies for NDC, many team leaders must address it on their own.

The Karpman Drama Triangle[Karpman 1968] can be a useful model for understanding NDC in teams. Here are brief descriptions of the three roles of the Triangle, emphasizing deeds rather than intentions.

Persecutors attack their Victims, using tactics like blaming, controlling, isolating, shaming, lying, or whatever might inflict psychic pain that advances the Persecutor's agenda, if there is one.
Victims adopt stances of hopeless helplessness. They rarely try to defend themselves, or escape their Persecutors' attacks, or constructively address their situations. Instead, they plead (sometimes silently) to anyone who might possibly come to their rescue.
Rescuers intervene between Victims and Persecutors, but they do so ineffectively. They might interrupt the persecution, but they rarely end the Persecutor's ability to re-engage. Victims therefore become dependent on the Rescuers' continuing intervention.

Although early indications of NDCs are usually attacks by Persecutors on Victims, team leaders watching for attacks miss many of them. Here's a catalog of attack modes frequently overlooked.

Isolating Victims by any means, including rumormongering or exclusion from meetings formal and informal, is difficult to detect, unless you're the Victim. Watch carefully. See "Social Isolation and Workplace Bullying," Point Lookout for August 21, 2013.
Tweaking CCs
Tweaking CCs are email messages containing damaging information, sent to Victims, and copied to supervisors or others in management. To enhance deniability, these messages usually appear businesslike, even though they contain aspersions. See "The Tweaking CC," Point Lookout for February 7, 2001.
In plopping Team leaders watching for personal
attacks in toxic conflicts miss many
of them because they are covert
incidents, the Persecutor is actually everyone in the meeting except the Victim. When the Victim makes a contribution, they all let it "plop." There is an awkward pause and then the discussion resumes as if the Victim were not even present. See "Plopping," Point Lookout for October 22, 2003.
Disinformation is more than mere lies. Truly effective disinformation is easy or cheap to produce, difficult or expensive to disprove, and damaging to the Victim. Disinformation thus enables the Persecutor to saturate the Victim's defenses. See "How Workplace Bullies Use OODA: I," Point Lookout for April 13, 2011.
Depriving Victims of resources needed to fulfill their responsibilities is an attack that's difficult to bear. Assigning unfavorable offices or cubicles, restricting access to information, or providing outdated equipment are examples for individual Victims. Project Victims (yes, projects can be Victims) might be staffed with untrained or less capable personnel or they might be allocated inadequate budgets.

These tactics can escape anyone's notice. But when attacks of a less covert nature occur — shouting, foul language, direct insults, whatever — look more closely. A pattern of prior covert attacks calls for vigorous investigation. Go to top Top  Next issue: Directed Attention Fatigue  Next Issue

[Karpman 1968]
Karpman, S. "Fairy tales and script drama analysis," Transactional Analysis Bulletin, 7:26, pp. 39-43, 1968. Retrieved from https://c4i.co/1e5. Additional related resources are available at this site. Back

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? rbrenLfBEPztblFXaCfJqner@ChacQBcazQYoglNHbaWuoCanyon.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:

A single-strand knotTangled Thread Troubles
Even when we use a facilitator to manage a discussion, managing a queue for contributors can sometimes lead to problems. Here's a little catalog of those difficulties.
President Barack Obama with Stevie WonderWhat You See Isn't Always What You Get
We all engage in interpreting the behavior of others, usually without thinking much about it. Whenever you notice yourself having a strong reaction to someone's behavior, consider the possibility that your interpretation has outrun what you actually know.
An elephant family drinking, Samburu National Reserve KenyaStalking the Elephant in the Room: I
The expression "the elephant in the room" describes the thought that most of us are thinking, and none of us dare discuss. Usually, we believe that in avoidance lies personal safety. But free-ranging elephants present intolerable risks to both the organization and its people.
A P-14 lady beetle devours a pea aphidWorkplace Bullying and Workplace Conflict: II
Of the tools we use to address toxic conflict, many are ineffective for ending bullying. Here's a review of some of the tools that don't work well and why.
Dr. Ben Carson speaking at CPAC 2015 in Washington, D.C., on 26 February 2015Characterization Risk
To characterize is to offer a description of a person, event, or concept. Characterizations are usually judgmental, and usually serve one side of a debate. And they often make trouble.

See also Conflict Management and Emotions at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A tangle of cordageComing March 28: Four Overlooked Email Risks: II
Email exchanges are notorious for exposing groups to battles that would never occur in face-to-face conversation. But email has other limitations, less-often discussed, that make managing dialog very difficult. Here's Part II of an exploration of some of those risks. Available here and by RSS on March 28.
A Mustang GT illegally occupying two parking spaces at Vaughan Mills Mall, OntarioAnd on April 4: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: III
People who behave narcissistically tend to regard themselves as special. They systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this part of the series we consider how this claimed specialness affects the organization and its people. Available here and by RSS on April 4.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbreniKSJJNkOFoSYYkiXner@ChacZSNghIXPiWvtFofIoCanyon.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

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about 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.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
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.