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:
- 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?
- See No Bully, Hear No Bully
- Supervisors of bullies sometimes are unaware of bullying activity in their organizations. Here's a collection
of indicators for supervisors who suspect bullying but who haven't witnessed it directly.
- Toxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Minimizing Authority
- Toxic conflict in virtual teams is especially difficult to address, because we bring to it assumptions
about causes and remedies that we've acquired in our experience in co-located teams. In this Part II
of our exploration we examine how minimizing authority tends to convert ordinary creative conflict into
a toxic form.
- Strategy for Targets of Verbal Abuse
- Many targets of verbal abuse at work believe that they have just two strategic options: find a new job,
or accept the abuse. In some cases, they're correct. But not always.
- 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.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 29: Newtonian Blind Alleys: II
- Some of our decisions don't turn out well. The nature of our errors does vary, but a common class of errors is due to applying concepts from physics originated by Isaac Newton. One of these is the concept of spectrum. Available here and by RSS on May 29.
- And on June 5: I Could Be Wrong About That
- Before we make joint decisions at work, we usually debate the options. We come together to share views, and then a debate ensues. Some of these debates turn out well, but too many do not. Allowing for the fact that "I could be wrong" improves outcomes. Available here and by RSS on June 5.
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