Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 40;   October 7, 2015:

Contextual Causes of Conflict: I

by

When destructive conflict erupts, we usually hold responsible only the people directly involved. But the choices of others, and general circumstances, can be the real causes of destructive conflict.
Bull moose sparring in Grand Teton National Park

Bull moose antler sparring in Grand Teton National Park to determine breeding rights. This is a common occurrence when the bull moose are in rut. The configurations of antlers vary from bull to bull, but most configurations are such that the bulls can easily disengage once locked. From time to time, though, two bulls can actually lock antlers in a way in which they cannot disengage, and that event can lead to the deaths of both. In this way, conflict — which does serve a purpose from the perspective of species fitness — can lead to losses that harm the species.

So it is with destructive conflict in organizations. Constructive conflict does serve a purpose, but when it changes from a constructive form to a destructive form, it harms the organization. Organizational culture and policies that elevate the likelihood of constructive conflict turning destructive are counter-effective.

Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

Destructive conflict can arise from a vast array of sources — innocent misunderstandings, campaigns to advance one's own career or destroy another's, spontaneous attacks, or acts of revenge. Destructive conflict can be inadvertently awkward or it can be intensely and permanently damaging. Rarely does it advance the work of the organization. At best, it enables temporary progress; at worst, it can permanently move a team so far from its objective that success is attainable only by redefining the objective.

Where destructive conflicts are common, their root causes likely lie in the organizational culture or the organization's leaders' approaches to shaping that culture. Here is Part I of a sampling of possible organizational roots of destructive conflict.

Prevalence of virtual teams
According to psychologist John Suler, a contributing cause of destructive conflict in the virtual environment is the online disinhibition effect. Briefly, virtual environments inherently weaken inhibitions that limit socially offensive behavior. (See "Toxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Dissociative Anonymity," Point Lookout for April 3, 2013) It's also possible that frequent exposure to the virtual environment has lingering effects on our behavior in the face-to-face environment.
Because the virtual environment is here to stay, we'll eventually learn how to use it responsibly. But even now, the outlines of a solution are clear: we can operate safely in virtual environments when we use them in conjunction with regular face-to-face contact. Compared to people who interact solely by virtual means, people who know each other well might be less likely to commit the social errors enabled by the online disinhibition effect. And when they do commit such errors, their relationships can provide the resources needed to make repairs quickly.
Recent losses
The phenomenon of Because the virtual environment
is here to stay, we'll eventually
learn how to use it responsibly
loss aversion,https://c4i.co/zu is our tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains of similar value. Having recently sustained losses can sometimes enhance this effect. For example, losses in organizational responsibility or power, as might occur in reorganization, can cause us to resist further losses more strongly than might be objectively justifiable, which can lead to intensified conflict.
Loss aversion relates to all kinds of losses. For example, after a reorg, people who were close friends might no longer be able to socialize because of changes in office assignments or scheduling. In response to this loss of social contact, they might feel isolated, and their behavior with respect to managing conflicts can change.
Disempowerment
When people feel helpless to address troubling organizational issues, they can experience stress and feelings of frustration. In a phenomenon known as ego depletion, the reserves of energy they need to accommodate each other's failings can be exhausted. (See "Ego Depletion: An Introduction," Point Lookout for November 20, 2013) On edge, a group of people in such a state can be unstable enough to support frequent destructive conflicts.
Evidence of steady progress in addressing as-yet-unresolved organizational challenges can help people manage their frustrations about those challenges.

We'll continue next time with our exploration of organizational causes of destructive conflict, focusing on performance management, politics, and change.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Contextual Causes of 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!

For more on Suler's work, visit his Web site.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenGBFYqdeDxZESDSsjner@ChacmtFQZGrwOdySPdSsoCanyon.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:

Acrobatics requires trustThe High Cost of Low Trust: I
We usually think of Trust as one of those soft qualities that we would all like our organizational cultures to have. Yet, truly paying attention to Trust at work is rare, in part, because we don't fully appreciate what distrust really costs. Here are some of the ways we pay for low trust.
The 1991 eruption of Mount PinatuboManaging Pressure: Communications and Expectations
Pressed repeatedly for "status" reports, you might guess that they don't want status — they want progress. Things can get so nutty that responding to the status requests gets in the way of doing the job. How does this happen and what can you do about it? Here's Part I of a little catalog of tactics and strategies for dealing with pressure.
Tornado in a mature stage of development (Photo #3 of a series of classic photographs)Responding to Threats: II
When an exchange between individuals, or between an individual and a group, goes wrong, threats often are either the cause or part of the results. If we know how to deal with threats — and how to avoid and prevent them — we can help keep communications creative and constructive.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the Union of South AfricaPeace's Pieces
Just as important as keeping the peace with your colleagues is making peace again when it has been broken by strife. Nations have peace treaties. People make up. Here are some tips for making up.
A blue peacock of IndiaThe Knowledge One-Upmanship Game
The Knowledge One-Upmanship Game is a pattern of group behavior in the form of a contest to determine which player knows the most arcane fact. It can seem like innocent fun, but it can disrupt a team's ability to collaborate.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A possibly difficult choiceComing April 21: Choice-Supportive Bias
Choice-supportive bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to evaluate our past choices as more fitting than they actually were. The erroneous judgments it produces can be especially costly to organizations interested in improving decision processes. Available here and by RSS on April 21.
Two people engaged in pair collaborationAnd on April 28: The Self-Explanation Effect
In the learning context, self-explanation is the act of explaining to oneself what one is learning. Self-explanation has been shown to increase the rate of acquiring mastery. The mystery is why we don't structure knowledge work to exploit this phenomenon. Available here and by RSS on April 28.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenGBFYqdeDxZESDSsjner@ChacmtFQZGrwOdySPdSsoCanyon.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.