The dictionary definition of belligerence is "…a hostile or warlike attitude, nature, or inclination." Because that covers so much territory, I want to consider — for now — just a small part of it. Overt belligerence is belligerence that's unconcealed and on display for all to see. It might be accidentally revealed, as in a display of anger, or it might be quite intentionally used as a tool, for example, in an attempt to intimidate an individual or group, or an attempt to disrupt a meeting.
Let me make the topic narrower still. Those who are belligerent by nature become known to all rather quickly in today's team-oriented workplaces. Unless the belligerent-by-nature possess great organizational power, they don't last long. So — again, for now — let me focus on the kind of belligerence that's associated with a hostile or warlike attitude, or inclination, and let me set aside the kind of belligerence that arises from the nature of the belligerent.
One more refinement. Belligerent behavior between two individuals in private at work can be expensive. For example, they might need to work together effectively to accomplish an important organizational goal. If they cannot accomplish that goal, the costs can be unbearable. But belligerent behavior in group settings — usually we call them "meetings" — can be far more expensive, because so many more people are involved, and the clock is running. That's my focus for now: overt belligerence in meetings, when the belligerence arises from a hostile attitude or inclination.
In this article, Belligerent behavior in group
settings can be expensive, because
so many people are involved,
and the clock is runningI'll address a generic belligerence situation. There are specific situations for which specific responses might be more effective, but the generic situation is a good place to start to illustrate general principles. Send me mail if you have a specific case you'd like me to examine.
In what follows, I'll use the name Brad to indicate the person whose behavior is belligerent.
In dealing with any objector one must begin by determining whether the objector is a sincere objector or a belligerent. The difference between a sincere objector and a belligerent can be subtle, because the objections of both can be sincere. The distinguishing characteristic of the belligerent — Brad — is this: although the objection is sincere, the attack itself is what really motivates him. For the belligerent, the attack is the thing. An example might clarify the distinction.
Typically, belligerent behavior involves registering some kind of complaint, in the form of an attack. Brad might attack almost anything: an individual, a decision, the meeting chair, the scribe, the agenda, whatever. And when someone defends the person or thing Brad attacked, he won't give up, even when everyone else in the meeting considers the defense adequate.
For example, in an attack on the agenda, Brad might object to the order. He might insist that Agenda Item 4 be placed in the Agenda Item 1 position. When the chair explains that Item 4 requires the decision the team will make after discussing Item 1, Brad objects to that, asserting that Item 4 can be addressed independently. He keeps objecting, no matter what anyone says. At some point, he begins objecting to everyone defending the current agenda order, saying that people are ganging up on him and won't let him speak. And so on, escalating ever more intensely into antagonism.
Engaging with Brad on the level of the content of his complaints is futile, because for Brad, the attack is the thing. Still, we're obliged to try it, because we cannot know a priori whether his complaint is substantive. But after peeling away two or three layers of the onion of his attacks, only to find attacks underneath, further engagement at the level of content is probably misguided.
Once it has become clear that the attacks will continue — that content-based responses are unlikely to mollify the attacker — what is there for the chair to do? There are three options. Most chairs, in my experience, keep trying to deal with the content of Brad's objections. As I've said, that rarely works.
A second option is to declare a recess. During the recess, the chair can try to work with Brad in an effort to persuade him to cease his objections. Something like, "I'll resume the meeting if you will assure me that you will cease your objections. Then later, we can discuss them privately. If you don't agree, or if you register more objections after we resume, I'll end the meeting." Brad might accept this, because he sees it as an opportunity to raise more objections. In situations I've witnessed, it does sometimes work. When the meeting resumes, Brad does sometimes "behave."
A third option is declaring the meeting ended, without negotiating with Brad. Afterwards, you can engage with Brad, and possibly his supervisor, on the subject of his disruptive behavior. This option is especially attractive if Brad has exhibited a pattern of disruptive behavior over several meetings, or if you've already tried the second option and Brad has reneged on his commitment to "behave."
Unless you supervise Brad yourself, the ultimate responsibility for resolving this issue lies with his supervisor. For suggestions about such situations, see "Performance Issues for Non-Supervisors," Point Lookout for July 12, 2017. A resolution that brings an end to the belligerence might not lie within your reach. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Recalcitrant Collaborators
- Much of the work we do happens outside the context of a team. We collaborate with people in other departments,
other divisions, and other companies. When these collaborators are reluctant, resistive, or recalcitrant,
what can we do?
- The True Costs of Indirectness
- Indirect communications are veiled, ambiguous, excessively diplomatic, or conveyed to people other than
the actual target. We often use indirectness to avoid confrontation or to avoid dealing with conflict.
It can be an expensive practice.
- Virtual Conflict
- Conflict, both constructive and destructive, is part of teamwork. As virtual teams become more common,
we're seeing more virtual conflict — conflict that crosses site boundaries. Dealing with destructive
conflict is difficult enough face-to-face, but in virtual teams, it's especially tricky.
- Seventeen Guidelines About Workplace Bullying
- Bullying is a complex social pattern. Thinking clearly about bullying is difficult in the moment because
our emotions can distract us. Here are some short insights about bullying that are easy to remember
in the moment.
- Clearing Conflict Fog
- At times, groups can become so embroiled in destructive conflict that conventional conflict resolution
becomes ineffective. How does this happen? What can we do about it?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming April 8: The New Virtual Meeting: Digressions
- The bane of meetings everywhere, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, has been digressions. But there are reasons to expect the incidence of digressions in meetings to increase now. What reasons could there be, and what can we do about digressions? Available here and by RSS on April 8.
- And on April 15: Incompetence: Traps and Snares
- Sometimes people judge as incompetent colleagues who are unprepared to carry out their responsibilities. Some of these "incompetents" are trapped or ensnared in incompetence, unable to acquire the ability to do their jobs. Available here and by RSS on April 15.
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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.