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.
We'll continue next time with more patterns of conflict escalation. Next in this series Top Next Issue
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:
- Recalcitrant Collaborators
- Much of the work we do happens outside the context of a team. We collaborate with people in other departments,
other divisions, and other companies. When these collaborators are reluctant, resistive, or recalcitrant,
what can we do?
- How to Prepare for Difficult Conversations
- Difficult conversations can be so scary to contemplate that many of us delay them until difficult conversations
become impossible conversations. Here are some tips for preparing for difficult conversations.
- Untangling Tangled Threads
- In energetic discussions, topics and subtopics get intertwined. The tangles can be frustrating. Here's
a collection of techniques for minimizing tangles in complex discussions.
- Even "Isolated Incidents" Can Be Bullying
- Many organizations have anti-bullying policies that address only repeated patterns of interpersonal
aggression. Such definitions expose the organization and its people to the harmful effects of "isolated
incidents" of interpersonal aggression, because even isolated incidents can be bullying.
- Covert Inter-Team Noncooperation
- Occasionally teams find that they must cooperate with another team despite strong misgivings. Because
noncooperation isn't an option, they find covert ways to avoid cooperating. Here's a little catalog
of techniques of Covert Inter-Team Noncooperation.
See also Conflict Management and Emotions at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
- And on June 21: Asking Burning Questions
- When we suddenly realize that an important question needs answering, directly asking that question in a meeting might not be an effective way to focus the attention of the group. There are risks. Fortunately, there are also ways to manage those risks. Available here and by RSS on June 21.
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