Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 21, Issue 24;   June 16, 2021: Organizational Roots of Toxic Conflict

Organizational Roots of Toxic Conflict

by

When toxic conflict erupts in a team, cooperation ends and person-to-person attacks begin. Usually we hold responsible the people involved. But in some cases, the organization is the root cause, and then replacing or disciplining the people might not help.
An empty theater

An empty theater, the scene of many dramas. When next you find yourself embroiled in toxic conflict, check to determine whether the organization is the root cause.

Conflict in interpersonal interactions entails disagreement about something. Creative conflict is disagreement among people about the what, the how, or the why of the something. In creative conflict, the focus of attention is the shared objective. Toxic conflict, on the other hand, is disagreement among people about each other's humanity, or each other's worth as human beings. In extreme forms, toxic conflict between two people (or two factions) can devolve into a debate about how to eliminate each other from the organization, using any means whatsoever, including lies, false accusations, and other unethical tactics.

The usual explanations for occurrences of toxic conflict are character deficits on the parts of the participants. But in some cases, toxic conflict comes about when good people find themselves in an organizational situation that can produce no outcome without toxic conflict. Sometimes, the roots of toxic conflict lie in the organization.

Here's a case study involving deployment of a new project management process in a project-oriented organization. This case is fictional. It's a synthesis of elements and events I've collected from clients, associates, and the press. I chose the personal names from the names of characters in Robert Louis Stevenson's book Treasure Island. I present this case study as a drama in two acts.

The players of the drama
The players in this drama are:
  • The CEO (Chief Executive Officer)
  • The CIO (Chief Information Officer)
  • The Process Agents, who are responsible for devising and deploying a new project management process
  • The Sponsors of the projects
  • The members of the project teams (the "Engineers")
  • The Project Managers of the projects
Act 1 Scene 1: Drowning in our own success
ShiverMeTimbers, Inc., (SMTI) has been growing rapidly in the treasure map industry for the past five years. It's now Number Two in the market. But it hasn't been able to match the performance of Pirates-R-Us (PRU), the market leader, largely because of limitations in SMTI's Information Technology (IT) operations. IT has been unable to deploy a commercial Customer Relationship Management (CRM) package in a way that allows it to interoperate with SMTI's own proprietary Treasure Map Clue generator. IT's most recent CRM attempt was cancelled after four years and a USD 7.3 million investment.
Act 1 Scene 2: Enter the hero
John Silver, CEO of SMTI, has reluctantly concluded that it's time to replace SMTI's CIO, a Mr. Ben Gunn, who seems to have lost his edge. Luckily, Mr. Silver has learned that one of PRU's brash young IT directors, Jim Hawkins, is unhappy at PRU. On Silver's request, SMTI's corporate counsel advises Silver that Hawkins' PRU noncompete agreement is "full of holes." So Silver raids PRU and sails away with Hawkins, appointing him as the new SMTI CIO.
Act 1 Scene 3: Our hero throws us a lifeline
After a four-month getting-to-know-each-other stint at SMTI, Hawkins determines what IT's problems are and devises a plan to fix IT. He forces a few IT directors to walk the plank, and promotes some top managers and engineers to replace them. He then commissions a task force to study IT's approach to project management and make adjustments.
The task forceToxic conflict can destroy
relationships, careers, and
even the organization itself
— now calling themselves the "Process Agents" — devises an approach to project management based on two principles. First, project teams must plan before they execute. And second, they must document their plans as they go, in the form specified in seven standard templates. Hawkins calls this new process the Project Management Process (PMP).
Act 1 Scene 4: Mandates aren't free
Trouble develops almost immediately after the Process Agents roll out the PMP. The PMP defines the seven documents as deliverables of each project. In the old process, documents weren't deliverable. That's why project teams for the projects already underway (the "projects in flight") regard the PMP documents as new burdens. Unfortunately, the PMP rollout doesn't include budget increases or schedule allowances for this extra work for projects in flight.
Intermission
And so we have the setup for toxic conflict. Act 2 illustrates how toxic conflict arises from the interaction between the previously assigned objectives of the projects in flight and the new documentation tasks of the PMP. As Act 2 shows, what appears on the surface to be conflict between people is actually a conflict between objectives. Said differently, the conflict between people arises from trying to accomplish too much work with too little training, not enough time, and insufficient resources.
We now return to the drama.
Act 2 Scene 1: Training the Engineers
This scene is very short indeed, because the Engineers receive no training in the how, why, or wherefore of the PMP. When asked about training the Engineers, the Process Agents reply that the Engineers didn't need any training because the new process doesn't change the work of the Engineers. "Engineering is engineering," they say.
Act 2 Scene 2: Adjusting the budgets and schedules of the projects in flight
This scene is even shorter than Act 2 Scene 1, because after announcing the PMP, the Process Agents offer no document waivers for projects in flight. Those projects are expected to produce the documents specified in the PMP. The process requires these projects to deliver whatever documents would have been completed by the time those projects had reached their current state. In some cases, according to the Process Agents, "some teams might have to backfill" some documents to catch up to their actual status.
Actually, every project team for the projects in flight must "backfill," with some of the projects having to "backfill" all seven documents.
Act 2 Scene 3: How the documents get written
Only the Engineers possess much of the knowledge required to complete the PMP documents. And because the Engineers receive no training or education about the importance or benefits of this documentation, most Engineers on most project teams don't understand the value of this work. They don't like doing it, and they don't do it. Moreover, even if they were willing, their schedule commitments don't allow them time to learn how to write the documents or to actually write them. Consequently, most Engineers decline to participate, citing their already-heavy workloads. Most Sponsors agree with their Engineers' positions, because they see the extra work as a threat to on-time on-budget delivery. The documentation workload therefore falls to the Project Managers.
Unfortunately, the Project Managers lack much of the knowledge required to complete the PMP documents. Consequently the Project Managers adopt a practice of asking Engineers for the necessary information at weekly team meetings.
After two or three weeks of this, Sponsors begin complaining about Project Managers "wasting so much time on administrivia at team meetings." Some Sponsors actually forbid Project Managers asking questions at team meetings. Tensions between Sponsors and Project Managers increase, and several Sponsor/Project Manager pairs became unable to work together effectively.
Act 2 Scene 4: Project Managers adopt underground tactics
The knowledge gap between the Project Managers and the Engineers persists. But because the Project Managers are responsible for complying with the PMP, they need to write the documents. And so they need to do something to acquire the information for the documents.
Some Project Managers try to ask Engineers questions by email or telephone. But these methods are too slow, and frequently the Engineers need to confer with each other to answer the Project Manager's questions, because the required knowledge is so dispersed. To speed things along, some project managers decide to hold their own weekly meetings with the Engineers — without the Sponsors — to gather the information. That does seem to work. The method spreads along the Project Manager grapevine and many Project Managers adopt it.
Act 2 Scene 5: Sponsors squelch the underground tactics
After about two weeks, two Sponsors discover that Project Managers and Engineers have been meeting "secretly." They accuse the Project Managers of "going behind our backs" to get the information for the PMP documents.
This alerts most Sponsors to the practice, and within a few days, all Sponsors forbid their Project Managers using "Engineers' time to do Project Managers' work." The Engineers, of course, welcome an end to the practice so they "can get back to work."
Act 2 Scene 6: All-out alienation
At this point, Engineers and Project Managers are alienated from each other. Project Managers and Sponsors are alienated from each other. Sponsors distrust the Engineers who "collaborated" with the Project Managers' "secret" meetings. And the Project Managers are struggling and failing to complete the project documents. Some have resorted to "making up what they can't find out."
The Process Agents sense that things aren't going well. They schedule a "transition review" of all projects to verify that they project teams are in compliance with the PMP. Only one of the 27 projects in flight passes the review. Because the Sponsors regard their Project Managers as responsible for the documentation task, the Sponsors whose projects are noncompliant become even more upset with their Project Managers.

Last words

How does it all end? Not well. We hope that the Process Agents come to understand how to do the PMP rollout in a way that avoids creating conditions for toxic conflict. And we hope that the damage done in this first try isn't permanent. Go to top Top  Next issue: What Keeps Things the Way They Are  Next Issue

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See also Organizational Change and Conflict Management for more related articles.

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We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

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