Violent conflict is rare in teams of knowledge workers. Because most organizations have policies about violence, officials intervene effectively, and violent conflict quickly leads to disciplinary or legal action and possible termination. Toxic conflict, or non-violent destructive conflict (NDC), is more common. More common it may be, but more manageable it is not. Because few organizations have effective policies for NDC, many team leaders must address it on their own.
The Karpman Drama Triangle [Karpman 1968] can be a useful model for understanding NDC in teams. Here are brief descriptions of the three roles of the Triangle, emphasizing deeds rather than intentions.
- Persecutors attack their Victims, using tactics like blaming, controlling, isolating, shaming, lying, or whatever might inflict psychic pain that advances the Persecutor's agenda, if there is one.
- Victims adopt stances of hopeless helplessness. They rarely try to defend themselves, or escape their Persecutors' attacks, or constructively address their situations. Instead, they plead (sometimes silently) to anyone who might possibly come to their rescue.
- Rescuers intervene between Victims and Persecutors, but they do so ineffectively. They might interrupt the persecution, but they rarely end the Persecutor's ability to re-engage. Victims therefore become dependent on the Rescuers' continuing intervention.
Although early indications of NDCs are usually attacks by Persecutors on Victims, team leaders watching for attacks miss many of them. Here's a catalog of attack modes frequently overlooked.
- Isolating Victims by any means, including rumormongering or exclusion from meetings formal and informal, is difficult to detect, unless you're the Victim. Watch carefully. See "Social Isolation and Workplace Bullying," Point Lookout for August 21, 2013.
- Tweaking CCs
- Tweaking CCs are email messages containing damaging information, sent to Victims, and copied to supervisors or others in management. To enhance deniability, these messages usually appear businesslike, even though they contain aspersions. See "The Tweaking CC," Point Lookout for February 7, 2001.
- In plopping Team leaders watching for personal
attacks in toxic conflicts miss many
of them because they are covertincidents, the Persecutor is actually everyone in the meeting except the Victim. When the Victim makes a contribution, they all let it "plop." There is an awkward pause and then the discussion resumes as if the Victim were not even present. See "Plopping," Point Lookout for October 22, 2003.
- Disinformation is more than mere lies. Truly effective disinformation is easy or cheap to produce, difficult or expensive to disprove, and damaging to the Victim. Disinformation thus enables the Persecutor to saturate the Victim's defenses. See "How Workplace Bullies Use OODA: I," Point Lookout for April 13, 2011.
- Depriving Victims of resources needed to fulfill their responsibilities is an attack that's difficult to bear. Assigning unfavorable offices or cubicles, restricting access to information, or providing outdated equipment are examples for individual Victims. Project Victims (yes, projects can be Victims) might be staffed with untrained or less capable personnel or they might be allocated inadequate budgets.
These tactics can escape anyone's notice. But when attacks of a less covert nature occur — shouting, foul language, direct insults, whatever — look more closely. A pattern of prior covert attacks calls for vigorous investigation. 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:
- Conflict Haiku
- When tempers flare, or tension fills the air, many of us contribute to the stew, often without realizing
that we do. Here are some haiku that describe some of the many stances we choose that can lead groups
into tangles, or let those tangles persist once they form.
- Virtual Termination with Real Respect
- When we have to terminate someone who works at a remote site, sometimes there's a temptation to avoid
travel — to use email, phone, fax, or something else. They're all bad ideas. Terminating people
in person is not only a gesture of respect. It's good business.
- False Consensus
- Most of us believe that our own opinions are widely shared. We overestimate the breadth of consensus
about controversial issues. This is the phenomenon of false consensus. It creates trouble in the workplace,
but that trouble is often avoidable.
- A Critique of Criticism: II
- To make things better, we criticize, but we often miss the mark. We inflict pain without meaning to,
and some of that pain comes back to us. How can we get better outcomes, while reducing the risks of
- Anecdotes and Refutations
- In debate and argumentation, anecdotes are useful. They illustrate. They make things concrete. But they
aren't proof of anything. Using anecdotes as proofs leads to much trouble and wasted time.
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.