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Volume 23, Issue 6;   February 8, 2023: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More

Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More


Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist?
Two bull elk sparring in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Two bull elk sparring in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. This behavior is part of a complex of behaviors that determine the mating rights of bulls. Because the outcome is important for species survival, the conflict can hardly be called a kerfuffle. We use the term kerfuffle when the combatants have invested far more in the conflict than the outcome is worth. Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

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 hand
unwinnable 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 supervisors 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.

Last words

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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Four Razors for Organizational Behavior  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict 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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