Constructive conflict is creative. Groups engaged in constructive conflict can produce results that are often superior to what they could have achieved without conflict. But when conflict turns toxic, both results and relationships can suffer. Resolving toxic conflict can limit the damage it does, but some damage often remains. That's one reason why preventing toxic conflict is a strategy superior to effectively resolving that same conflict.
Here are some guidelines for preventing toxic conflicts from forming.
- Understand the Fundamental Attribution Error
- The Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE) is the human tendency to explain the behavior of others by attributing too much to character (and especially character flaws), and not enough to circumstances (and especially extenuating circumstances).
- Because of the FAE, we sometimes experience remarks as intentional attacks, when they are actually evidence that the person making the remark is misinformed. The FAE leads us to anger and frustration when we experience unpleasant consequences of others' behavior. Similarly, when the actions of others cause us difficulty, awareness of the Fundamental Attribution Error makes us less likely to experience irritation.
- Understand the online disinhibition effect
- The online disinhibition effect explains why toxic conflict erupts so easily in virtual environments. Briefly, because the virtual environment lacks ways of connecting individuals with the consequences of antisocial behavior, the virtual environment suppresses inhibitions that limit such behavior in the face-to-face context. See "Toxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Dissociative Anonymity," Point Lookout for April 3, 2013, for more.
- Educate people about this phenomenon. When we know what can happen, when we have a shared understanding of the phenomenon, and when we have a name for it, we can deal with it better when it occurs. More important, we're less likely to fall into the difficulty.
- Choose communications media carefully
- In communications, In communications, the greater
the need for delicacy,
the more necessary are
immediacy and privacythe greater the need for delicacy, the more necessary are immediacy and privacy. Communications media vary widely in their degree of immediacy and in the privacy they afford.
- For example, email is dangerous. Many toxic conflicts arise from the simple act of using email to sort out honest but passionate disagreements. This problem is so widespread that it has a name: "flame war". Telephone is somewhat better than email, but still dangerous. Choose communications media carefully.
- Be intentional about building trust
- Trust doesn't just happen. It must be built intentionally, and carefully maintained. Workgroups that try to collaborate, while investing too little in building and maintaining trust, are especially vulnerable to toxic conflict.
- Become a student of trust-building strategies. Because the effectiveness of such strategies is strongly culture-dependent, recognize that the answers for your organization might require some original thought. But to get you started, take a look at "Express Your Appreciation and Trust," Point Lookout for January 16, 2002, and "Creating Trust," Point Lookout for January 21, 2009. And remember, abandoning trust-eroding strategies can itself be a trust-building strategy. For example, reducing the incidence of split assignments can reduce trust erosion. See How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts for more.
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:
- Hostile Collaborations
- 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?
- Discussion Distractions: I
- Meetings could be far more productive, if only we could learn to recognize and prevent the distractions
that lead us off topic and into the woods. Here is Part I of a small catalog of distractions frequently
seen in meetings.
- What You See Isn't Always What You Get
- We all engage in interpreting the behavior of others, usually without thinking much about it. Whenever
you notice yourself having a strong reaction to someone's behavior, consider the possibility that your
interpretation has outrun what you actually know.
- Overt Belligerence in Meetings
- Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not
be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern.
- Newly Virtual Politics: Choices
- Pandemic or not, workplace politics marches on, though politics might take slightly different forms
in a pandemic. Those different forms make new choices available, and render some formerly effective
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming 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.
- And 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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