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Volume 14, Issue 42;   October 15, 2014: Preventing Toxic Conflict: II

Preventing Toxic Conflict: II

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Last updated: August 8, 2018

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.
Tennis players shake hands after their match

Tennis players shaking hands after their match. This practice, which is a social norm widespread in the world of tennis, helps to establish connection and respect among competitors. Photo (cc) by kance courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Respectful behavior reduces (but doesn't eliminate) the incidence of toxic conflict among members of groups or teams. But since people don't always agree on what respectful means, groups or teams intent on preventing toxic conflict do better when they come to consensus about what respectful behavior is. Typically, this definition is developed as a list of behavioral norms.

Here are four guidelines for developing, propagating, and maintaining behavioral norms.

Establish behavioral norms
Unless we define acceptable behavior, unacceptable behavior is almost inevitable. But posting lists of what's acceptable and what isn't is ineffective. Behavioral norms must be developed by the group members themselves, and adopted by consensus.
Disagreement about behavioral norms is one source of danger from frequent changes in team composition, which are common when people have multiple team assignments. When people haven't been involved in developing the team's behavioral norms, they don't feel ownership of the norms, and that depresses compliance rates.
Include behavioral norms in the onboarding process
When people join the group or team, be certain to include in their orientation a review of the behavioral norms. Devise some form of acceptance mechanism that compels a discussion of any norms the new group members aren't inclined to support.
New group members bring new perspectives. The group must be willing to revisit the previously accepted behavioral norms when new members raise reasonable objections.
Know how to handle violations
Adopting behavioral Adopting behavioral norms is a step
forward, but what happens when one
or more of the norms is violated?
norms is a step forward, but what happens when one or more of the norms is violated? Some norms coincide or overlap with organizational behavioral requirements. When these norms are violated, the procedures of the organization hold sway. That's the easy case.
When group-specific norms are violated, the team or group must act. The team's sponsor can arbitrate, but the team and the offender must negotiate a resolution. Although this process can be complex and difficult, ignoring violations can generate even more difficulties. A pattern of repeated norm violations by a particular group member might constitute a performance issue. If a pattern emerges, seek the assistance of the individual's supervisor.
Understand cultural differences
When work groups include people from multiple cultures, difficulties can arise. Social norms can differ, and what "goes without saying" for people of one culture might need to be explicitly stated for people from another. And what seems acceptable to one might be taboo for another.
Experience with your particular cultural mix is helpful in determining what group norms are needed. Changing the cultural mix might necessitate changing the norms.

One last suggestion. Collaborate with other teams to exchange insights. Exchanging with other teams any experiences, insights, or ideas for norms can accelerate group learning about what norms are most helpful. There's no point in replicating difficulties that other groups have already resolved. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Meta-Debate at Work  Next Issue

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