Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 13;   April 1, 2015: Creating Toxic Conflict: II
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Creating Toxic Conflict: II

by

Some supervisors seem to behave as if part of their job description is creating toxic conflict among their subordinates. It isn't really, of course, but here's a collection of methods bad managers use that make trouble.
The business end of a spark plug

The business end of a spark plug, a component of an internal combustion engine. The spark plug is responsible for igniting the fuel-air mixture that fills the combustion chamber in each one of the cylinders of an internal combustion engine. The curved metal arm at the top of the photo is one electrode, and the central post, surrounded by a white ceramic insulator, is the other. A spark is visible arcing between the two electrodes.

The electrodes of a spark plug provide a useful metaphor for understanding conflict in a human system. Both electrodes are necessary for sparking. Assigning greater responsibility to one electrode or another isn't a useful approach to understanding the internal combustion engine. Nor are the electrodes alone sufficient for sparking. A complex system consisting of wires, coils, a battery, an alternator, and much more, is absolutely necessary to make the spark jump the gap between the electrodes of the spark plug.

So it is with most conflicts in organizations. The two people who play the roles of the electrodes are probably only part of the "circuit." Photo courtesy Auto Care Experts.

When toxic conflict erupts within work groups, we usually look for causes in the behavior of the people engaged in conflict. Often, though, the root causes lie elsewhere. One area worth examining is the behavior and policies of the supervisor. Here is Part II of a little catalog a management behaviors, beliefs, and policies that tend to create toxic conflict, written as advice and guidance for the truly bad manager seeking to create toxic conflict. See "Creating Toxic Conflict: I," Point Lookout for March 25, 2015, for more.

Tolerate abusive behavior
When one subordinate attacks, bullies, or otherwise abuses another, it's none of your business. Let them work it out. Nuff said.
Sow distrust
When subordinates trust each other, they quickly become unmanageable. It becomes difficult to get them to promise to do the impossible, because they trust each other enough to speak truth to power. And we can't have them speaking truth to power. Subordinates must believe at all times that they're all willing to go to any lengths to get ahead of each other.
Tolerate cliquishness
Resist the temptation to break up cliques. Although cliques often reduce productivity, they do so largely by creating tensions and toxic conflict within the group. And that's exactly what you want. A little lost productivity is a small price to pay for creating some long-lasting toxic conflict.
Use fear as a management tool
Eloquence, charisma, and leadership skills can get you only so far. To produce maximum productivity, instill fear. Sometimes, even that isn't enough — only sheer terror will get the management job done. Make them fear for their careers, their families, and their very existence.
Adhere to the "personality clash" model of toxic conflict
Group dynamics When subordinates trust each other,
it becomes difficult to get them to
promise to do the impossible
experts do advise that two-person conflict has sources that are typically more diffuse than just the two people involved. That advice isn't worth the screen it's displayed on. The two people involved are the root cause of the difficulty. Order them to go into a conference room and not come out until they are friends. And set a reasonable time limit, like, say, 45 minutes.
Push people beyond the breaking point
Because chronic, intense stress causes people to lose control, push people very, very hard. Tell them the survival of the company, and therefore their jobs, depends on their getting their work done in x time, where x is about a quarter of what it should actually take.
Accept immigrants
Sometimes managers do try to offload onto other managers their incompetent, troublesome, difficult, insubordinate, narcissistic, borderline-psychopathic, or otherwise unmanageable employees. To most managers, being asked to receive — or being ordered to accept — such people is a problem. But to those aspiring to truly bad management, it's the solution to a problem. Difficult people provide some valuable raw material for toxic conflict.

Managers who adopt even a third of these ideas should have no shortage of toxic conflict. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Why We Don't Care Anymore  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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Groups sometimes find that although they cannot agree on the issue at hand in its entirety, they can agree on some parts of it. Yet, they remain stuck, unable to reach a narrow agreement before moving on to the more thorny areas. Why does this happen?
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See also Conflict Management and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

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