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

Creating Toxic Conflict: Part 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: Part 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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Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

The Johari WindowAssumptions and the Johari Window: Part I
The roots of both creative and destructive conflict can often be traced to differing assumptions of the parties to the conflict. Working out these differences is a lot easier when we know what everyone's assumptions are.
A calm seaAn Emergency Toolkit
You've just had some bad news at work, and you're angry or really upset. Maybe you feel like the target of a vicious insult or the victim of a serious injustice. You have work to do, and you want to respond, but you must first regain your composure. What can you do to calm down and start feeling better?
The Night Café, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888Changing the Subject: Part II
Sometimes, in conversation, we must change the subject, but we also do it to dominate, manipulate, or assert power. Subject changing — and controlling its use — can be important political skills.
Vincent's Bedroom in Arles, by Vincent Van GoghVirtual Conflict
Conflict, both constructive and destructive, is part of teamwork. As virtual teams become more common, we're seeing more virtual conflict — conflict that crosses site boundaries. Dealing with destructive conflict is difficult enough face-to-face, but in virtual teams, it's especially tricky.
Male peponapis pruinosa — one of the "squash bees."Preventing Spontaneous Collapse of Agreements
Agreements between people at work are often the basis of resolving conflict or political differences. Sometimes agreements collapse spontaneously. When they do, the consequences can be costly. An understanding of the mechanisms of spontaneous collapse of agreements can help us craft more stable agreements.

See also Conflict Management and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A vizsla in a pose called the play bowComing April 26: Why Dogs Make the Best Teammates
Dogs make great teammates. It's in their constitutions. We can learn a lot from dogs about being good teammates. Available here and by RSS on April 26.
A business meetingAnd on May 3: Start the Meeting with a Check-In
Check-ins give meeting attendees a chance to express satisfaction or surface concerns about how things are going. They're a valuable aid to groups that want to stay on course, or get back on course when needed. Available here and by RSS on May 3.

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