At work, conflict usually appears in the form of disagreements about the content of the work at hand. Short-lived disagreements generally remain constructive. The parties to such conflicts can usually find approaches acceptable to all, and often the approaches they find are superior to what any of the parties initially advocated. Because many long-term conflicts follow similarly constructive trajectories, constructive conflict is a good thing. It is indispensable.
Toxic conflict is different.
Generally, what the parties to a toxic conflict overtly argue about is what they've agreed (tacitly) to argue about. What actually troubles them might be something else altogether, and it's rarely stated explicitly. The volleys in a toxic conflict can become increasingly bitter, increasingly personal, and increasingly self-perpetuating. Each exchange hurts the parties more than the one that preceded it, and each exchange motivates the parties to escalate ever higher.
In toxic conflict, the problem is never the problem. The conflict itself, and how the parties cope with it, becomes the real problem. And a real problem it can be. Toxic conflict can damage relationships so severely that organizational productivity can be permanently and inalterably compromised. Voluntary terminations, involuntary terminations, or reorganizations are sometimes the only "resolutions" to toxic conflict.
When we In toxic conflict, the
problem is never the problemspeak of "conflict resolution," we often have toxic conflict in mind. Although constructive conflict can turn toxic, sometimes rather easily, demand for conflict resolution services for constructive conflict is low, because the parties can usually deal with it themselves. Typically, only when constructive conflict turns toxic do people feel the need for "conflict resolution."
Although resolving toxic conflicts is far superior to terminations or reorgs, three cautions must be kept in mind.
- Toxic conflict is a whole-system phenomenon
- We often assume that the only parties to the conflict are those whose voices we hear or whose messages we read. Not so. Typically, toxic conflict involves, to one degree or another, everyone associated with the group that contains the obvious players, whether or not the people in question have participated overtly. Included in this class are managers, team owners, and sponsors — everyone associated with the group.
- Do-it-yourself brain surgery is a tad difficult
- Do-it-yourself brain surgery is so inconceivable that it's laughable. Attempts by anyone involved in toxic conflict to resolve that conflict are about as likely to succeed as do-it-yourself brain surgery. An uninvolved party is much more likely to find a resolution, because earning the trust of the parties to the conflict is a key to facilitating a resolution.
- Defensive driving is preferable to body work
- If you've ever driven a car, you know that learning to avoid collisions is much better than learning how to fix smashed cars. So it is with toxic conflict. Keeping conflict constructive is much preferred to resolving toxic 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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More articles on Conflict Management:
- The True Costs of Indirectness
- Indirect communications are veiled, ambiguous, excessively diplomatic, or conveyed to people other than
the actual target. We often use indirectness to avoid confrontation or to avoid dealing with conflict.
It can be an expensive practice.
- What Insubordinate Non-Subordinates Want: III
- When you're responsible for an organizational function, and someone not reporting to you doesn't comply
with policies you rightfully established, trouble looms. What role do supervisors play?
- When Over-Delivering Makes Trouble
- When responding to inquiries such as "Is that correct?" we sometimes err by giving too many
reasons why it's incorrect. Patterns of over-delivery can lead to serious trouble. Here's how.
- Compulsive 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.
- Reframing Revision Resentment: II
- When we're required to revise something previously produced — prose, designs, software, whatever,
we sometimes experience frustration with those requiring the revisions. Here are some alternative perspectives
that can be helpful.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- Decision-makers who rely on incomplete or biased information are more likely to make faulty decisions. Congruent decision-making can limit the incidence of bad decisions. Available here and by RSS on September 26.
- And on October 3: Congruent Decision-Making: II
- Decision-makers who rely on incomplete or biased information are more likely to make decisions that don't fit the reality of their organizations. Here's Part II of a framework for making decisions that fit. Available here and by RSS on October 3.
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