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:
- Dismissive Gestures: II
- In the modern organization, since direct verbal insults are considered "over the line," we've
developed a variety of alternatives, including a class I call "dismissive gestures." They
hurt personally, and they harm the effectiveness of the organization. Here's Part II of a little catalog
of dismissive gestures.
- Letting Go of the Status Quo: the Debate
- Before we can change, we must want to change, or at least accept that we must change. And somewhere
in there, we must let go of some part of what is now in place — the status quo. In organizations,
the decision to let go involves debate.
- What Insubordinate Non-Subordinates Want: II
- When you're responsible for an organizational function, and someone not reporting to you won't recognize
your authority, or doesn't comply with policies you rightfully established, you have a hard time carrying
out your responsibilities. Why does this happen?
- Recognizing Hurtful Dismissiveness
- "Never mind" can mean anything from "Excuse me, I'm sorry," to, "You lame idiot,
it's beyond you," and more. The former is apologetic and courteous. The latter is dismissive and
hurtful. We have dozens of verbal tactics for hurting each other dismissively. How can we recognize them?
- Toxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Dissociative Anonymity
- Toxic conflict in teams disrupts relationships and interferes with (or prevents) accomplishment of the
team's goals. It's difficult enough to manage toxic conflict in co-located teams, but in virtual teams,
dissociative anonymity causes toxic conflict to be both more easily triggered and more difficult to resolve.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 29: Newtonian Blind Alleys: II
- Some of our decisions don't turn out well. The nature of our errors does vary, but a common class of errors is due to applying concepts from physics originated by Isaac Newton. One of these is the concept of spectrum. Available here and by RSS on May 29.
- And on June 5: I Could Be Wrong About That
- Before we make joint decisions at work, we usually debate the options. We come together to share views, and then a debate ensues. Some of these debates turn out well, but too many do not. Allowing for the fact that "I could be wrong" improves outcomes. Available here and by RSS on June 5.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people 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.