For teams or groups, achieving high performance often requires skill in resolving destructive conflict. Unlike fine wine, destructive conflict does not improve with age. Left alone, it can consume resources essential to organizational success. But even when we resolve a destructive conflict, it's an expensive distraction. Prevention is better than resolution.
To prevent destructive conflict, we must know its causes. Here's Part II of a little catalog of practices and situations that tend to generate destructive conflict.
- Sudden change
- Change is almost always difficult. Suddenness makes Change even more difficult, but it does more. It creates general insecurity, by creating doubt that we understand the world around us.
- When Change is elective, release as much information about it as you can as early as you can. Prepare the people of the organization.
- Zero-sum recognition practices
- Recognition programs that have a zero-sum structure can inhibit cooperative behavior and create intense rivalries. In a group of N people, creating one winner creates N-1 losers, and that undermines teamwork. For example, an organization that designates only one "Engineer of the Year" might experience erosion in the overall sense of teamwork and group loyalty.
- Modern organizations depend for success on contributions from employees in a wide range of positions, working as individuals and in groups or teams. Surely we can find ways to recognize all. Recognizing everyone for something reduces the incidence of destructive conflict. Recognizing everyone is an honest acknowledgment of the reality of modern work life.
- Rank-based performance management
- Some performance management systems rate individual performance according to several levels across several dimensions. They use that rating for compensation adjustment, promotion, disciplinary action, and termination. This methodology can be a fertile source of destructive conflict when combined with quotas, in a framework often called "forced ranking" or "stack ranking."
- In today's highly interconnected workplaces, the concept of individual performance is itself questionable. We cannot always determine who contributed what, and a contribution that seems constructive today might not seem so constructive next month, even if we could realistically determine its value. Given these uncertainties, risking destructive conflict by using quota-based performance management systems would seem counter-productive on its face.
- Hierarchical conflict
- Manifestations of destructive Sudden Change creates general
insecurity, by creating doubt that we
understand the world around usconflict among executives and/or senior managers can appear throughout the organization. As subordinates interact, some can fear that mutual respect or cooperation with the subordinates of rival senior managers might be interpreted as behavior disloyal to their own senior managers.
- Seek complete resolution of feuds between senior managers, recognizing that a truce is not resolution. Abandon the illusion that such feuds can be "private." The secret always escapes.
Think of root causes of destructive conflict as masters of camouflage, intent on surviving by remaining unnoticed. Then search for them where you think they aren't. First 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 much more about the effects of recognition practices on performance, see No Contest: The Case Against Competition, by Alfie Kohn. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1986. Especially chapter 6.
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- In the Groove
- Under stress, we sometimes make choices that we later regret. And we wonder, "Will I ever learn?"
Fortunately, the problem usually isn't a failure to learn. Changing just takes practice.
- Managing Pressure: The Unexpected
- When projects falter, we expect demands for status and explanations. What's puzzling is how often this
happens to projects that aren't in trouble. Here's Part II of a catalog of strategies for managing
- Obstructionist Tactics: I
- Teams and groups depend for their success on highly effective cooperation between their members. If
even one person is unable or unwilling to cooperate, the team's performance is limited. What tactics
do obstructors use?
- Stalking the Elephant in the Room: I
- The expression "the elephant in the room" describes the thought that most of us are thinking,
and none of us dare discuss. Usually, we believe that in avoidance lies personal safety. But free-ranging
elephants present intolerable risks to both the organization and its people.
- Unresponsive Suppliers: I
- If we depend on suppliers for some tasks in a project, or for necessary materials, their performance
can affect our ability to meet deadlines. What can we do when a supplier's performance is problematic,
and the supplier doesn't respond to our increasingly urgent pleas for attention?
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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