by Rick Brenner
Animosity between two people at work is often attributed to "personality clashes." While sometimes people can't get along, animosity can also be a tool for accomplishing strictly political ends. Here's a short catalog of some of its uses.
The causes of animosity between two people might be outside the awareness of bystanders, or even outside the awareness of either party or both. But animosity usually has roots somewhere. One common explanation for animosity between two people — overused, I believe — is a "personality clash."
But animosity can arise from other sources. For example, it can be structural, arising when the people involved represent groups that are in a state of toxic conflict. And animosity can be a tactic — created by one or both parties, who might use animosity to achieve an undisclosed goal.
A gray wolf. Most gray wolves are affiliated with a pack, which patrols and maintains a marked territory, defending it from neighboring packs and unaffiliated wolves. To a pack, territory means food and den sites — in short, survival. Territory violations by members of neighboring packs and unaffiliated animals are seen as threats to survival, and often result in fights to the death. This mechanism helps ensure a healthy balance between predator and prey populations. More about the gray wolf from the Wisconsin Department of natural Resources.
In the workplace, animosity can serve a similar function. When a particular organization becomes too crowded with people of similar ambitions, contention can result in displacement of some to other organizations. Although animosity can serve such a constructive role, the price in terms of lost productivity and depressed morale can be very high. Unlike the gray wolf, humans are capable of devising alternative mechanisms perhaps better suited to distributing talent. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
When animosity is a tactic, addressing it as anything else probably won't work. Here's a little catalog of animosity patterns I've seen people use. It might help you recognize when animosity is a tactic.
- The indirect target
- Sometimes the actual target of the operator isn't obvious. For example, if the actual target is a team lead, and the operator hopes to displace the team lead, the operator might target someone else to create dissension, providing evidence that the team lead is ineffective. This tactic works better when the dissension created doesn't involve the team lead directly.
- Feet of clay
- Disrupting a team's social structure can be one route to becoming a dominant figure on a team. The disrupter gradually antagonizes the current dominant figure, intending to force what appear to be unforced errors. Flustered, dominant figures under such attack might commit blunders serious enough to compromise their positions, and the displacement is then complete. This approach is more effective when the current dominant figure champions noble, higher ideals.
- Some believe that all their relationships must be pleasant and cheerful. Their willingness to bend is what many would term "beyond reasonable" or even "self-destructive." They're easy targets for those who use animosity as a tactic. By creating tension in the relationship, the operator can use it for all manner of workplace favors, such as freeing up assignments or obtaining political support for their endeavors.
- Discrediting the competition
- Some operators When animosity is a tactic,
addressing it as anything
else probably won't workuse animosity to discredit potential competitors. By creating difficulty between the competitor and those around him or her, they create the impression that the competitor is difficult to work with. This approach is more effective if the operator is especially productive and ingratiating to the shared superior. In some cases, the operator actually becomes the superior's close confidant.
One more pattern of animosity is particularly troubling. It could be called "Just for kicks." There are those who derive satisfaction or comfort from animosity in the atmosphere. Perhaps they're unaware of what they're doing, but that matters little to those around them. If you find someone like this in your world, it's probably best to show him or her the way out, or find a way out for yourself. 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
- Dispersed Teams and Latent Communications
- When geography divides a team, conflicts can erupt along the borders. "Us" and "them" becomes a way of seeing the world, and feelings about people at other sites can become hostile. Why does this happen and what can we do about it?
- The Fine Art of Quibbling
- We usually think of quibbling as an innocent swan dive into unnecessary detail, like calculating shares of a lunch check to the nearest cent. In debate about substantive issues, a detour into quibbling can be far more threatening — it can indicate much deeper problems.
- Dismissive Gestures: Part I
- Humans are nothing if not inventive. In the modern organization, where verbal insults are deprecated, we've developed hundreds of ways to insult each other silently (or nearly so). Here's part one of a catalog of non-verbal insults.
- Responding to Threats: Part II
- When an exchange between individuals, or between an individual and a group, goes wrong, threats often are either the cause or part of the results. If we know how to deal with threats — and how to avoid and prevent them — we can help keep communications creative and constructive.
- New Ideas: Experimentation
- In collaborative problem solving, teams sometimes perform experiments to help choose a solution. These experiments sometimes lead to trouble. What are the troubles and how can we avoid them?
See also Conflict Management, Emotions at Work and Workplace Politics for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 24: The Perils of Novel Argument
- When people use novel or sophisticated arguments to influence others, the people they're trying to influence are sometimes subject to cognitive biases triggered by the nature of the argument. This puts them at a disadvantage relative to the influencer. How does this happen? Available here and by RSS on December 24
- And on December 31: The Power and Hazards of Anecdotes: Part I
- Anecdotes are short stories — sometimes just a single sentence. They're powerful tools of persuasion, but they can also be dangerous, to both anecdote tellers and anecdote listeners. Available here and by RSS on December 31
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