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Volume 15, Issue 41;   October 14, 2015: Contextual Causes of Conflict: II

Contextual Causes of Conflict: II

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Last updated: August 8, 2018

Too often we assume that the causes of destructive conflict lie in the behavior or personalities of the people directly participating in the conflict. Here's Part II of an exploration of causes that lie elsewhere.
The U.S. Capitol Building, seat of both houses of the legislature

The U.S. Capitol Building, seat of both houses of the legislature. Party politics in the past decade or so, and particularly during the administration of Barack Obama, have become quite toxic. Evidence includes government shutdowns, government service interruptions, and a debt default. Each party blames the other, but one must wonder whether root causes might lie elsewhere. The structure of the government itself hasn't changed much recently, but there have been changes both in the rules regarding funding of political campaigns, and in rules regarding the definitions of legislative districts. Because researching the root causes of toxic conflict in politics is itself subject to political influence, we might have to wait for historians to find answers. Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

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 us
conflict 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  Go to top Top  Next issue: Managing Wishful Thinking Risk  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 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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