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.
- Non-apology 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: non-apology 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 non-apology apologies out of ignorance, it's unsafe to assume that non-apology apologies are always innocent. Because non-apology apologies can sometimes be acts of aggression, probing for truth is wise. To effectively prevent the non-apology 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 non-apology 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:
- Bemused Detachment
- Much of the difficulty between people at work is avoidable if only we can find ways to slow down our
responses to each other. When we hurry, we react without thinking. Here's a suggestion for increasing
comity by slowing down.
- Political Framing: Strategies
- In organizational politics, one class of toxic tactics is framing — accusing a group or individual
by offering interpretations of their actions to knowingly and falsely make them seem responsible for
reprehensible or negligent acts. Here are some strategies framers use.
- Workplace Bullying and Workplace Conflict: I
- Bullying is unlike other forms of toxic conflict. That's why the tools we use to address toxic conflict
simply do not work for bullying. In this Part I, we contrast bullying and ordinary toxic conflict.
- New Ideas: Experimentation
- In collaborative problem solving, teams sometimes perform experiments to help choose a solution. These
experiments sometimes lead to trouble. What are the troubles and how can we avoid them?
- Shame and Bullying
- Targets of bullies sometimes experience intense feelings of shame. Here are some insights that might
restore the ability to think, and maybe end the bullying.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
- And on August 1: Strategies of Verbal Abusers
- Verbal abuse at work has special properties, because it takes place in an environment in which verbal abuse is supposedly proscribed. Yet verbal abuse does happen at work. Here are three strategies abusers rely on to avoid disciplinary action. Available here and by RSS on August 1.
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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.