Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 12;   March 25, 2015:

Creating Toxic Conflict: I

by

Many managers seem to operate as if their primary goal is to create toxic conflict among their subordinates. Here's a collection of methods for sowing toxic conflict that can help bad managers become worse managers.
The flagship store of the Market Basket supermarket chain

The flagship store of the Market Basket supermarket chain, in Chelsea, Massachusetts. The privately held chain, which serves Eastern New England, was embroiled in a decades-long family feud between the descendants of Telemachus DeMoulas and George DeMoulas, who had purchased the business from their father in 1954. The two brothers each owned 50% of the business, and the arrangement worked well. But when ownership passed to their survivors, trouble began. The first lawsuit was filed in 1990, setting off a chain of hostile legal actions that finally ended on August 27, 2014, following a strike by most employees in support of the re-hiring of the then-recently-fired President of the company, Arthur T. DeMoulas, son of Telemachus. The final settlement was achieved when Arthur T.'s buyout offer was accepted by the opposing side of the family. More about the history of Market Basket

This tale is a family tragedy, of course. One cannot know for certain, but one possible cause is the 50/50 ownership structure the DeMoulas brothers created. It is one form of the technique of having "overlapping or ambiguous job descriptions" listed in this essay.

Photo by Cybah courtesy Wikimedia.

Working for a bad manager is frustrating, but working for a truly bad manager drives you absolutely insane. Almost daily, truly bad managers shock their subordinates with unexpectedly breathtaking examples of incompetence, stupidity, and malice. Being a truly bad manager requires energy, devotion, and limitless creativity. Managers aspiring to be truly bad need a comprehensive resource of tools and techniques for driving subordinates insane.

This short essay can't possibly be a comprehensive resource, but it does outline methods for achieving one of the truly bad manager's strategic objectives: creating toxic conflict. Here is Part I of a catalog of techniques for setting subordinates against one another, written as advice for the truly bad manager.

Have overlapping or ambiguous job descriptions
Ensure that the job descriptions of subordinates are written explicitly enough or ambiguously enough that several of them can be read so as to cover some of the same responsibilities. For extra zing, overlap those responsibilities that are most valued, and most likely to be regarded as bases for self-esteem or career advancement.
Set ambiguous, immeasurable performance objectives
To motivate your subordinates to do whatever they can to destroy each other, you want them to be anxious about their own performance. In performance reviews, set objectives that are unclear, ambiguous, and immeasurable. If they also aren't achievable, so much the better.
Play favorites
Show favoritism in making assignments, allocating resources, and distributing credit and praise. Be consistent about confiding in some people, and not others. If you have a small circle of favorites, those outside it will quickly learn to resent those inside it.
Communicate ineffectively
Whenever you communicate anything important, do it ineffectively, and hurriedly depart for an important meeting, off-site, or vacation. Leave them wondering what you really meant. Let them argue it out amongst themselves.
Use harassment, blaming, and scapegoating…judiciously
Repeatedly harassing, blaming, and scapegoating a few specific individuals provides a means of shifting responsibility for failures from yourself or from your favorites onto a few people. Their careers are already in ruins, so it does them no real harm. But it does provide a pattern for other subordinates to use when they need to evade responsibility.
Deny having made previous commitments
When someone Being a truly bad manager
requires energy, devotion,
and limitless creativity
claims that you agreed to do or not do something, and you later didn't do or did do it, deny having agreed to do or not do it. Claim confidently that you thought you were just discussing doing or not doing it. And make sure one of your favorites backs you up.
Overload some people and underload others
Distribute work unevenly. Make sure some people have to work, well, not 24/7, but maybe 19/6 or something like that, while others can just kick back. Keep stress levels at maximum.

We'll continue next time with many more ideas for creating toxic conflict.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Creating 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!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

Lion, ready to spring, in Samburu National Reserve, KenyaUsing Indirectness at Work
Although many of us value directness, indirectness does have its place. At times, conveying information indirectly can be a safe way — sometimes the only safe way — to preserve or restore well-being and comity within the organization.
Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill on the portico of the Soviet Embassy at the Teheran ConferenceHostile 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?
An adult male mountain lion captured by biologistsThe Myth of Difficult People
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.
Two varieties of "Stupid" buttonsPushing the "Stupid" Button
Some people know exactly how to lead others to feel ignorant or unintelligent. Here's a little catalog of tactics to watch for.
U.S. President Lyndon Johnson giving Senator Richard Russell the "treatment" in the White House Cabinet Room on December 17, 1963Newly 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 choices ineffective.

See also Conflict Management and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Bottom: Aerial view of the Forth Bridge, Edinburgh, Scotland. Top: Inside the Forth Rail Bridge, from a ScotRail 158 on August 22, 1999.Coming June 1: Mental Accounting and Technical Debt
In many organizations, technical debt has resisted efforts to control it. We've made important technical advances, but full control might require applying some results of the behavioral economics community, including a concept they call mental accounting. Available here and by RSS on June 1.
A goose and goslingsAnd on June 8: Flexible Queue Management
In meetings of 5-30 participants, managing the queue of contributors can be challenging. A strict first-in-first-out order can cause confusion and waste of time if important contributions are delayed. Some meetings need more flexible queue management. Available here and by RSS on June 8.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenEQuetChPjwYBDxmgner@ChacxXTxBssoFmfDfMugoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.