Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 41;   October 8, 2014: Preventing Toxic Conflict: I

Preventing Toxic Conflict: I

by

Conflict resolution skills are certainly useful. Even more advantageous are toxic conflict prevention skills, and skills that keep constructive conflict from turning toxic.
Six atoms in a Schrödinger "cat" state

Six atoms in a Schrödinger "cat" state. A "cat" state in quantum mechanics is a state that can be interpreted as consisting of two or more states that classically conflict.

The term arises from a debate undertaken by Erwin Schrödinger and Albert Einstein. In the summer of 1935, in a startlingly brilliant example of constructive conflict, Schrödinger and Einstein exchanged a number of letters debating a point of the theory of quantum mechanics. The system in question, which was fictitious, consisted, in part, of a box containing a cat. They were able to devise a thought experiment in which it could be argued that the cat was both alive and dead. This issue is still undergoing debate.

In an experiment conducted at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, experimenters were able to induce six ions into a quantum "cat" state in which their nuclei are collectively each spinning both clockwise and counterclockwise. Photo courtesy U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology.

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 privacy
the 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.

We continue this exploration next time, focusing on the adoption and enforcement of behavioral norms. First in this series | Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Preventing Toxic Conflict: II  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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More articles on Conflict Management:

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Many books and Web sites offer advice for dealing with difficult people. There are indeed some difficult people, but are they as numerous as these books and Web sites would have us believe? I think not.
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In debate and argumentation, anecdotes are useful. They illustrate. They make things concrete. But they aren't proof of anything. Using anecdotes as proofs leads to much trouble and wasted time.
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Establishing norms for respectful behavior is perhaps the most effective way to reduce the incidence of toxic conflict at work. When we all understand and subscribe to a particular way of treating each other, we can all help prevent trouble.
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When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

An informal meeting geometryComing November 21: Make Suggestions Privately
Suggesting a better way of doing things can sometimes backfire surprisingly and intensely. Making suggestions privately reduces that risk, but introduces a different risk. Available here and by RSS on November 21.
A beefsteak, with some amount of fatAnd on November 28: Wacky Words of Wisdom: VI
Adages, aphorisms, and "words of wisdom" seem valid often enough that we accept them as universal and permanent. Most aren't. Here's Part VI of a collection of widely held beliefs that can be misleading at work. Available here and by RSS on November 28.

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