Resolving destructive conflict with dispatch is a valuable practice for at least two reasons. First, destructive conflict substantially degrades group productivity. Second, destructive conflict can become so toxic that it can permanently damage interpersonal relationships. Conventional approaches to resolving such conflicts usually entail private conversations (or sometimes a series of private conversations) with the parties to the conflict, in which we air grievances and devise approaches that address those grievances.
Sometimes, though, conventional conflict resolution fails, because so many group members are engaged in so many destructive conflicts that the conflicts interact. When that happens, resolving any one conflict has little lasting effect. Moreover, when the parties to that resolved conflict return to the group environment, they can become entangled in other conflicts, which can disrupt the resolution they just recently achieved.
When destructive conflict becomes widespread enough, it can "repair" itself — it can undo whatever we do to resolve it. Clearing it is like trying to clear the air of fog. You can blow the fog away in one place, but fog from adjacent spaces quickly fills the cleared space.
Groups enmeshed in widespread destructive conflict aren't experiencing multiple conflicts. They're experiencing one conflict fog.
Resolving conflict fog can be so frustrating that managers sometimes resort to transfer, termination, or reorganization. But there is another approach that can be attempted before employing more drastic measures.
Since conflict fog is group-wide, deal with it as such. Instead of addressing each conflict separately and privately, assemble the entire group for a day (or more) of Instead of addressing each conflict
separately and privately, assemble
the entire group for a day
(or more) of conflict resolutionconflict resolution. Deal with each conflict openly, letting the entire group participate in each conflict resolution exercise. This can be effective because it exploits four phenomena.
- Suspension of aggravating events
- Halting (or at least minimizing) routine work attenuates the stream of aggravating events that has been feeding ongoing conflict. This can prevent the conflicts from becoming more complex while we're working on them.
- Normalization of flexibility
- Working with the parties to any given conflict changes the configuration of that conflict. With the rest of the group observing, the parties to the conflict adopt new stances, and make commitments to approach things differently. This change in posture makes it easier for others to change their postures. It normalizes flexibility.
- Group-wide disclosure of perspectives
- As we work with the parties to one conflict, they disclose their perspectives and feelings in ways they might not have done previously. The entire group learns about how the parties experienced the incidents of the conflict. Understanding and insight propagate.
- Near-simultaneity of resolution of interlocking conflicts
- Conventional one-at-a-time conflict resolution rests on the assumptions that conflicts are independent of each other, and that privacy enables fuller disclosure. But in conflict fog, working through any one conflict "in public" often aids progress in other conflicts.
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!
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- A stone-thrower in a meeting is someone who is determined to halt forward progress. Motives vary, from embarrassing the chair to holding the meeting hostage in exchange for advancing an agenda. What can chairs do about stone-throwers? Available here and by RSS on March 27.
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