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:
- Teamwork Myths: Conflict
- For many teams, conflict is uncomfortable or threatening. It's so unpleasant so often that many believe
that all conflict is bad — that it must be avoided, stifled, or at least managed. This is a myth.
Conflict, in its constructive forms, is essential to high performance.
- Some Subtleties of ad hominem Attacks
- Groups sometimes make mistakes based on faulty reasoning used in their debates. One source of faulty
reasoning is the ad hominem attack. Here are some insights that help groups recognize and avoid this
class of errors.
- The Myth of Difficult People
- Many books and Web sites offer advice for dealing with difficult people. There are indeed some difficult
people, but are they as numerous as these books and Web sites would have us believe? I think not.
- Grace Under Fire: III
- When someone at work seems intent on making your work life a painful agony, you might experience fear,
anxiety, or stress that can lead to a loss of emotional control. Retaining composure is in that case
the key to survival.
- Grace Under Fire: IV
- People can be astonishingly inventive when trying to harm others. Some strategies involve driving to
distraction the target of their malevolence by humiliating the target and lying about the target's character,
deeds, or abilities. Targets who recognize these methods are more likely to be able to maintain composure.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 8: Multi-Expert Consensus
- Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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