Conflict resolution skills are universally recognized as valuable assets in modern organizations. And rightly so, because some people know, almost intuitively, exactly how to escalate conflicts from mild disagreements to near-warfare levels, without actually being caught doing it. While these destructive techniques might be of some short-term value to those who employ them, their use threatens the organizational mission.
Early recognition of these destructive patterns can dramatically reduce the incidence of toxic conflict in teams or groups that must frequently collaborate. That's why knowing how to recognize these patterns of conflict escalation is a skill perhaps even more valuable than conflict resolution.
Here is Part I of a little catalog of patterns that people use — sometimes inadvertently — to convert simple disagreements into workplace warfare. This part emphasizes behavior. Part II emphasizes patterns of thinking.
- Accusations of marginal norm violations
- Behavioral norms, explicit or implicit, govern social behavior in groups. For example, most workplace teams regard raised voices in meetings as violations of behavioral norms. (See "Preventing Toxic Conflict: II," Point Lookout for October 15, 2014, for more on behavioral norms)
- Certainly identifying norm violations is necessary at times. But claims not supported by evidence, or claims of marginal violations, can be tools for advancing toxic conflict. Although such assertions can be genuine complaints about the behavior of alleged offenders, they can also be initial aggressive acts, or retaliations for perceived past transgressions. A pattern of claims about marginal transgressions can be a signal worth attending to.
- Rejecting apologies
- When someone (the Offeror) offers an apology to someone else (the Recipient), and the Recipient declines the offer or refuses to accept the apology, the Recipient deprives the group of an opportunity to put the offense behind it. That might be appropriate, if the apology is insincere or if the offense merits disciplinary action.
- But if an apology is a suitable remedy for the offense, declining the apology can actually be an aggressive act intended to escalate the conflict. The rejection might appear innocent, or perhaps petulant, even though it is an act intended to deepen the conflict.
- Nonapology apologies
- Apologies that aren't Early recognition of patterns of
conflict escalation can dramatically
reduce the incidence of toxic
conflict in teams or groups that
must frequently collaborateactually apologies have become so common that there is a term for them: nonapology apologies. They can appear in any of various forms. For example, "mistakes were made." Or the very popular "I'm sorry if you were offended (or hurt, or harmed, …)."
- Although some people do offer nonapology apologies out of ignorance, it's unsafe to assume that nonapology apologies are always innocent. Because nonapology apologies can sometimes be acts of aggression, probing for truth is wise. To effectively prevent the nonapology apology from escalating the conflict, a third party can try to elicit a sincere apology, which must include a solid element of contrition. To the extent that such attempts do fail, the nonapology apology is more likely to be an aggressive act. For more on effective apologies, see "Demanding Forgiveness," Point Lookout for June 18, 2003.
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:
- Changing the Subject: I
- Whether in small group discussions, large meetings, or chats between friends, changing the subject of
the conversation can be constructive, mischievous, frustrating, creative, tension relieving, necessary,
devious, or outright malicious. What techniques do we use to change the subject, and how can we cope
- 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.
- Teamwork Myths: Conflict
- For many teams, conflict is uncomfortable or threatening. It's so unpleasant so often that many believe
that all conflict is bad — that it must be avoided, stifled, or at least managed. This is a myth.
Conflict, in its constructive forms, is essential to high performance.
- The Knowledge One-Upmanship Game
- The Knowledge One-Upmanship Game is a pattern of group behavior in the form of a contest to determine
which player knows the most arcane fact. It can seem like innocent fun, but it can disrupt a team's
ability to collaborate.
- Capability Inversions and Workplace Abuse
- A capability inversion occurs when the person in charge of an effort is far less knowledgeable about
the work than are the people doing that work. In some capability inversions, abusive behavior by the
unit's leader might be misinterpreted as bullying.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 1: The Big Power of Little Words
- Big, fancy words, like commensurate or obfuscation, tend to be more noticed than the little everyday words, like yet or best. That might be why the little words can be so much more powerful, steering conversations where their users want them to go. Available here and by RSS on February 1.
- And on February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
- Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.
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