Jill heard a knock at the door. "Come in," she called. It was Troy, and he looked upset. If he felt like he looked, this would be his second "upset" visit in two days. Jill blanked her screen, turned to face Troy, motioned to the chair in front of her desk and said, "Please."
Troy sat. "I'm done," he said. "I'm here to let you know that I've requested reassignment."
Jill had been optimistic at first — Metronome was her team's second project together and Daffodil had been very successful. Well, almost. With hindsight, Jill could see that Rachel and Troy had had some bumps over Daffodil. Now Metronome was becoming a disaster.
Jill had tried everything. She'd worked with Rachel alone, and with Rachel and each of the three others who'd had difficulty with her. Finally she had referred the whole mess up to HR. Nothing worked. Jill wanted to keep Rachel, because she understood the driver software, but not if it meant losing everyone else.
Ironically, Jill's solutions would all lead to the same outcome, because Rachel isn't the problem. For reasons unknown to Jill, transferring Rachel to another team would only create an unfilled conflict role that someone else would then fill. Here's why.
Early in Daffodil, Troy and Jim had been "at war." Jill had separated them by assigning Troy some work that Rachel wanted, but had never asked for, and assigning Rachel some work she hated, but had never objected to. Since Jill stuck with those assignments for Metronome, Rachel had been fuming privately for months. Now she was always irritable, regularly lashing out.
Rachel had placated — she hadn't expressed her discomfort to Jill. Troy and Jim had coped by blaming each other, and Jill had found a super-reasonable "peace" rather than working through everyone's issues, which continued to simmer. Rachel became the focus of the conflict, though she actually contributed only a small piece.
The focus of conflict
is often a role —
it can be filled
by anyoneRachel became the identified patient — the one who exhibited symptoms of pain that was caused by imbalance in the overall system. The team saw the problem as belonging to Rachel, even though four people played roles in creating and maintaining the problem.
Most group interpersonal conflict follows similar patterns. People who seem to be central — especially the identified patient — might only be peripheral to the conflict. People who seem to be peripheral or even helpful can actually be responsible, in part, for igniting and maintaining the conflict.
Eventually, it all came apart for Jill's team. Rachel was reassigned, at great cost to her, to the team, and to Metronome. Jim and Troy were again working more closely together, and resumed their war. Jill was back to Square One — but now Metronome was late.
If you're inside the system, you probably can't tell what's really happening. Seeking outside assistance — from someone with a detached perspective, and the right skills — is your best hope. And the earlier you do it, the easier it will be. Top Next Issue
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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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Why Others Do What They Do
- If you're human, you make mistakes. A particularly expensive kind of mistake is guessing incorrectly
why others do what they do. Here are some of the ways we get this wrong.
- Conversation Irritants: II
- Workplace conversation is difficult enough, because of stress, time pressure, and the complexity of
our discussions. But it's even more vexing when people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous.
Here's Part II of a small collection of their techniques.
- Grace Under Fire: III
- When someone at work seems intent on making your work life a painful agony, you might experience fear,
anxiety, or stress that can lead to a loss of emotional control. Retaining composure is in that case
the key to survival.
- The Risks of Rehearsals
- Rehearsing a conversation can be constructive. But when we're anxious about it, we can imagine how it
would unfold in ways that bias our perceptions. We risk deluding ourselves about possible outcomes,
and we might even experience stress unnecessarily.
- Commenting on the Work of Others
- Commenting on the work of others risks damaging relationships. It can make future collaboration more
difficult. To be safe when commenting about others' work, know the basic principles that distinguish
appropriate and inappropriate comments.
See also Conflict Management for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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