Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 40;   October 1, 2014: Toxic Conflict at Work

Toxic Conflict at Work

by

Preventing toxic conflict is a whole lot better than trying to untangle it once it starts. But to prevent toxic conflict, we must understand some basics of conflict, and why untangling toxic conflict can be so difficult.
A wrecked automobile

An autombile wrecked in the course of research. This particular wreck illustrates severe penetration resulting from a rear-end collision. The damage provides a clear illustration of the advantages of avoiding accidents altogether. In the workplace, training people in avoiding or preventing toxic conflict is far more effective than any program of training in conflict resolution. Photo courtesy U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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 problem
speak 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.

Next time, we'll explore strategies for preventing toxic conflict.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Preventing Toxic Conflict: 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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Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

Thumbs downRecalcitrant Collaborators
Much of the work we do happens outside the context of a team. We collaborate with people in other departments, other divisions, and other companies. When these collaborators are reluctant, resistive, or recalcitrant, what can we do?
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Sometimes, in conversation, we must change the subject, but we also do it to dominate, manipulate, or assert power. Subject changing — and controlling its use — can be important political skills.
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Sometimes collaboration with people we hold in low regard can be valuable. If we enter a hostile collaboration without first accepting both the hostility and the value, we might sabotage it outside our awareness, and that can render the effort worthless — or worse. What are the dynamics of hostile collaborations, and how can we do them well?
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Agreements between people at work are often the basis of resolving conflict or political differences. Sometimes agreements collapse spontaneously. When they do, the consequences can be costly. An understanding of the mechanisms of spontaneous collapse of agreements can help us craft more stable agreements.
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The Knowledge One-Upmanship Game is a pattern of group behavior in the form of a contest to determine which player knows the most arcane fact. It can seem like innocent fun, but it can disrupt a team's ability to collaborate.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The future site of 2 World Trade Center as it appeared in 2013Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerAnd on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

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