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:
- Deniable Intimidation
- Some people achieve or maintain power by intimidating others in deniable ways. Too often, when intimidators
succeed, their success rests in part on our unwillingness to resist, or on our lack of skill. By understanding
their tactics, and by preparing responses, we can deter intimidators.
- Political Framing: Communications
- 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 communications tactics framers use.
- Impasses in Group Decision-Making: I
- Groups sometimes find that although they cannot agree on the issue at hand in its entirety, they can
agree on some parts of it. Yet, they remain stuck, unable to reach a narrow agreement before moving
on to the more thorny areas. Why does this happen?
- Toxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Virtuality
- In virtual teams, toxic conflict sometimes seems to erupt spontaneously. People who function effectively
in co-located teams can find themselves repeatedly embroiled in conflicts that seem to lack specific
causes. What triggers toxic conflict in virtual teams?
- Directed Attention Fatigue
- Humans have a limited capacity to concentrate attention on thought-intensive tasks. After a time, we
must rest and renew. Most brainwork jobs aren't designed with this in mind.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- Suggesting a better way of doing things can sometimes backfire surprisingly and intensely. Making suggestions privately reduces that risk, but introduces a different risk. Available here and by RSS on November 21.
- And on November 28: Wacky Words of Wisdom: VI
- Adages, aphorisms, and "words of wisdom" seem valid often enough that we accept them as universal and permanent. Most aren't. Here's Part VI of a collection of widely held beliefs that can be misleading at work. Available here and by RSS on November 28.
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