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 nonviolent 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:
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- Grace Under Fire: I
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the soundness of your arguments can matter less than your demeanor. What can you do when someone intends
to make you "lose it?"
- On Assigning Responsibility for Creating Trouble
- When we assign responsibility for troubles that bedevil us, we often make mistakes. We can be misled
by language, stereotypes, and the assumptions we make about others.
- Covert Obstruction in Teams: II
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But some repeatedly confront attempts to deprive them of resources or to limit their progress. When
team members covertly obstruct progress, what techniques do they use?
- Some Consequences of Blaming
- Both blame-oriented cultures and accountability-oriented cultures can learn from their mistakes. Accountability-oriented
cultures learn how to avoid repeating their mistakes. Blame-oriented cultures learn how to repeat their
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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