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 responsiblyloss 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.
- 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 Top Next Issue
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.
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Dismissive Gestures: II
- In the modern organization, since direct verbal insults are considered "over the line," we've
developed a variety of alternatives, including a class I call "dismissive gestures." They
hurt personally, and they harm the effectiveness of the organization. Here's Part II of a little catalog
of dismissive gestures.
- 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.
- Pre-Decision Discussions: Emotions
- Some meeting agendas include exploring issues related to upcoming decisions. Although we believe that
these discussions lead to rational decisions, some contributions evoke possibly misleading emotional
responses. Here are five examples.
- Organizational Roots of Toxic Conflict
- When toxic conflict erupts in a team, cooperation ends and person-to-person attacks begin. Usually we
hold responsible the people involved. But in some cases, the organization is the root cause, and then
replacing or disciplining the people might not help.
- Bullying by Proxy: I
- The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms
are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so
easily evades most anti-bullying policies.
See also Conflict Management and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
- And on June 21: Asking Burning Questions
- When we suddenly realize that an important question needs answering, directly asking that question in a meeting might not be an effective way to focus the attention of the group. There are risks. Fortunately, there are also ways to manage those risks. Available here and by RSS on June 21.
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