A kerfuffle is a "to-do," commotion, fuss, turmoil, squall, ruckus, uproar, controversy, scandal, quarrel, disturbance, bother, dispute, conflict, blather, furor, or mess. The term kerfuffle is a term of disparagement. To apply it to a conflict situation is to imply that the parties (I'll call them combatants) to the conflict are making much more of the issue than the issue is worth. If the conflict truly is overblown, all combatants will pay dearly in terms of social stature. There is no "win-lose" or "win-win" resolution to a kerfuffle. Kerfuffles are lose-lose.
The term lose-lose when applied to kerfuffles isn't always correct. Strictly speaking, the term lose-lose in reference to a dispute between two parties describes the respective outcomes the two parties receive. Both lose. So applying the term to a three-party kerfuffle wouldn't be quite right. "Lose-lose-lose" would be more accurate. Even better: unwinnable.
Two questions about kerfuffles arise. Why are kerfuffles unwinnable? And if they are unwinnable, what keeps them going?
An example of a kerfuffle
Here's an example:
Ella is one of the few directors who doesn't have a corner office. The limited number of corners doesn't permit it. She pressed her boss repeatedly to fix this, but over a year has passed and she had just about given up. But when they hired a new director of diversity last month, they found a way to give her a corner office. So Ella decided to take action. She would make Jenn (director of diversity) so miserable that Jenn would have to leave or transfer or whatever, and then Jenn's office would be available. Ella tried to destroy everything Jenn wanted to do, needed to do, thought she might ever do — secretly and deniably of course. Soon Jenn began to fight back. The kerfuffle was on.
To the outside observer, the trouble between Ella and Jenn appears to be a "personality clash." It isn't. Ella is out of line, but she's trying to right a perceived wrong. Jenn is defending herself. An astute supervisor could resolve this with just a bit of investigation. Maybe that would happen in some cases. Maybe not.
Why kerfuffles are unwinnable
The term The problem with kerfuffles is that
the exertions of the participants
are disproportionate relative
to the matter at handunwinnable might be a bit misleading. Any of the combatants can "win" in the short term. But the longer-term impact on the stature of the "winner" can be damaging indeed. The net effect, even for "winners" is very likely negative. Let's explore this point.
- Even if you "win" you lose
- Let's assume that winning a kerfuffle means that the resolution includes whatever it was that you were advocating. The problem with kerfuffles is that the exertions of the combatants are disproportionate relative to the matter at hand. And that's why the combatants all suffer loss of social stature, independent of the outcome. By engaging in the kerfuffle, they're demonstrating their own poor judgment, lack of self-control, loss of perspective, willfulness, and worse. These elements of character usually matter more than the matter at hand.
- Strength symmetry
- Who started the kerfuffle doesn't really matter much. Whether initiating or responding, the combatants remain engaged because they believe that prevailing is possible. If a kerfuffle persists — if it's durable — all combatants are probably mistaken in their assessments of their relative strength. That is, no party to a durable kerfuffle has the strength required to prevail in short order. And even when one combatant does prevail, victory can come at great cost.
- The clarity of the bystander perspective
- Bystanders to a kerfuffle have a vantage point that the combatants lack. They can see clearly how unimportant the matter at hand truly is. And they can see just as clearly how the combatants have misjudged the importance of that issue. Bystanders recognize that the combatants likely will come to that same conclusion very soon. That's why bystanders remain bystanders, despite pressure from one faction or the other. They know that the price of involvement is too high. They also know that no matter who prevails, the bystanders will probably benefit most.
What keeps kerfuffles alive
If the combatants could pause for a long moment, and take a few deep breaths, they might notice that "winning" is unlikely. They might catch a glimpse of how they look to outside observers. A close confidant might alert them to these insights. Probably these flashes of insight do occur from time to time, and some combatants do stand down. But kerfuffles often persist, overcoming all threats to their continuing. I can offer three explanations for their persistence.
- Inaction by responsible supervisors
- Among the factors that contribute to kerfuffle durability, perhaps the most significant is inaction by responsible supervisors. This group includes the direct supervisors of all combatants. In many cases, there is only one person on the list, because the kerfuffle involves only people supervised by that person.
- In all cases, though, the kerfuffle can persist only if the supervisors decline to intervene. That they are aware of its existence is almost certain. Neglect is inexcusable, but not the worst case. The worst case involves false beliefs that lead some supervisers to actually foment kerfuffles. These beliefs include myths such as "a little competition improves performance," or "If I let them sort it out themselves they'll devise a better solution than anyone else can."
- Supervisors must recognize that kerfuffles depress productivity and increase turnover. And they don't resolve themselves. They might go dormant for a time, but when they emerge, they're more toxic. They become gradually more distracting from the organizational mission.
- The deterrence theory
- Some kerfuffle combatants adhere to a "deterrence theory." They believe that if they stand down from the conflict, their lives will be immediately and irretrievably degraded. According to the deterrence theory, opponents who sense weakness will seize the opportunity for immediate victory.
- Rarely is the power differential among kerfuffle combatants so great that such a one-sided outcome is possible. When it does occur, the victor is probably emboldened not by the behavior of the vanquished, but by the blessing — and possible assistance — of a superior acting behind the scenes.
- Anger and the drive for vengeance
- Some combatants in kerfuffles do lose control of their emotions. They take offense where none was intended. They retaliate to "attacks" whether the attack is real or only perceived. They experience compulsions to "teach a lesson" to the offender, whether the offense was intended or not.
- These urges, unprofessional though they might be, can be difficult to resist. And they lie at the heart of many kerfuffles. They cause those who experience them to take steps that escalate the conflict and harm their own careers.
The word kerfuffle brings along with it a connotation of futility or foolishness. But kerfuffles are dangerous. Participation can be a fateful choice that leads only to deep regret. 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!
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Conflict Management:
- Hurtful Clichés: I
- Much of our day-to-day conversation consists of harmless clichés: "How goes it?" or
"Nice to meet you." Some other clichés aren't harmless, but they're so common that
we use them without thinking. Maybe it's time for some thought.
- Making Meaning
- When we see or hear the goings-on around us, we interpret them to make meaning and significance. Some
interpretations are thoughtful, but most are almost instantaneous. Since the instantaneous ones are
sometimes goofy or dangerous, here's a look at how we make interpretations.
- The Power of Situational Momentum
- For many of us, the typical workday presents a series of opportunities to take action. We often approach
these situations by choosing among the expected choices. But usually there are choices that exploit
situational momentum, and they can be powerful choices indeed.
- Preventing Toxic Conflict: II
- Establishing norms for respectful behavior is perhaps the most effective way to reduce the incidence
of toxic conflict at work. When we all understand and subscribe to a particular way of treating each
other, we can all help prevent trouble.
- Pushing the "Stupid" Button
- Some people know exactly how to lead others to feel ignorant or unintelligent. Here's a little catalog
of tactics to watch for.
See also Conflict Management and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 29: Time Slot Recycling: The Risks
- When we can't begin a meeting because some people haven't arrived, we sometimes cancel the meeting and hold a different one, with the people who are in attendance. It might seem like a good way to avoid wasting time, but there are risks. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
- And on April 5: The Fallacy of Division
- Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results. Available here and by RSS on April 5.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info