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:
- 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
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- How Targets of Bullies Can Use OODA: II
- To make the bullying stop, many targets of bullies try to defend themselves. But defense alone is not
sufficient — someone must make the bully stop. That's why counterattack is much more likely
- 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 July 24: The Stupidity Attribution Error
- In workplace debates, we sometimes conclude erroneously that only stupidity can explain why our debate partners fail to grasp the elegance or importance of our arguments. There are many other possibilities. Available here and by RSS on July 24.
- And on July 31: More Things I've Learned Along the Way: IV
- When I have an important insight, or when I'm taught a lesson, I write it down. Here's Part IV from my personal collection. Available here and by RSS on July 31.
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- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached
the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the
race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical
drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders, business analysts, project
sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore
lessons in leadership and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look
at leadership from the vantage point of history. Read
more about this program. Here's a date for this program:
- Baldwin-Wallace University, 275 Eastland Road, Berea, Ohio
44017: November 7,
Kerzner Lecture Series/International Project Management Day, sponsored by Baldwin Wallace University and the Northeast Ohio Chapter of the Project Management Institute.
- Baldwin-Wallace University, 275 Eastland Road, Berea, Ohio 44017: November 7, Kerzner Lecture Series/International Project Management Day, sponsored by Baldwin Wallace University and the Northeast Ohio Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
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