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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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Dismissive Gestures: III
- Sometimes we use dismissive gestures to express disdain, to assert superior status, to exact revenge
or as tools of destructive conflict. And sometimes we use them by accident. They hurt personally, and
they harm the effectiveness of the organization. Here's Part III of a little catalog of dismissive gestures.
- Discussion Distractions: II
- Meetings are less productive than they might be, if we could learn to recognize and prevent the most
common distractions. Here is Part II of a small catalog of distractions frequently seen in meetings.
- How to Misunderstand Somebody Else
- Misunderstandings are commonplace at work, as in most of the rest of Life. At work, they might be even
more commonplace, because at work it sometimes seems that people are actually trying to misunderstand.
Here's a handy guide for those who want to get better at misunderstanding others.
- Rope-A-Dope in Organizational Politics
- Mohammed Ali's strategy of "rope-a-dope" has wide application. Here's an example of applying
it to workplace politics at the organizational scale.
- Devious Political Tactics: More from the Field Manual
- Careful observation of workplace politics reveals an assortment of devious tactics that the ruthless
use to gain advantage. Here are some of their techniques, with suggestions for effective responses.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 17: Overt Belligerence in Meetings
- Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern. Available here and by RSS on October 17.
- And on October 24: Conversation Irritants: I
- Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people 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.