Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 40;   October 1, 2014: Toxic Conflict at Work

Toxic Conflict at Work

by

Preventing toxic conflict is a whole lot better than trying to untangle it once it starts. But to prevent toxic conflict, we must understand some basics of conflict, and why untangling toxic conflict can be so difficult.
A wrecked automobile

An autombile wrecked in the course of research. This particular wreck illustrates severe penetration resulting from a rear-end collision. The damage provides a clear illustration of the advantages of avoiding accidents altogether. In the workplace, training people in avoiding or preventing toxic conflict is far more effective than any program of training in conflict resolution. Photo courtesy U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

At work, conflict usually appears in the form of disagreements about the content of the work at hand. Short-lived disagreements generally remain constructive. The parties to such conflicts can usually find approaches acceptable to all, and often the approaches they find are superior to what any of the parties initially advocated. Because many long-term conflicts follow similarly constructive trajectories, constructive conflict is a good thing. It is indispensable.

Toxic conflict is different.

Generally, what the parties to a toxic conflict overtly argue about is what they've agreed (tacitly) to argue about. What actually troubles them might be something else altogether, and it's rarely stated explicitly. The volleys in a toxic conflict can become increasingly bitter, increasingly personal, and increasingly self-perpetuating. Each exchange hurts the parties more than the one that preceded it, and each exchange motivates the parties to escalate ever higher.

In toxic conflict, the problem is never the problem. The conflict itself, and how the parties cope with it, becomes the real problem. And a real problem it can be. Toxic conflict can damage relationships so severely that organizational productivity can be permanently and inalterably compromised. Voluntary terminations, involuntary terminations, or reorganizations are sometimes the only "resolutions" to toxic conflict.

When we In toxic conflict, the
problem is never the problem
speak of "conflict resolution," we often have toxic conflict in mind. Although constructive conflict can turn toxic, sometimes rather easily, demand for conflict resolution services for constructive conflict is low, because the parties can usually deal with it themselves. Typically, only when constructive conflict turns toxic do people feel the need for "conflict resolution."

Although resolving toxic conflicts is far superior to terminations or reorgs, three cautions must be kept in mind.

Toxic conflict is a whole-system phenomenon
We often assume that the only parties to the conflict are those whose voices we hear or whose messages we read. Not so. Typically, toxic conflict involves, to one degree or another, everyone associated with the group that contains the obvious players, whether or not the people in question have participated overtly. Included in this class are managers, team owners, and sponsors — everyone associated with the group.
Do-it-yourself brain surgery is a tad difficult
Do-it-yourself brain surgery is so inconceivable that it's laughable. Attempts by anyone involved in toxic conflict to resolve that conflict are about as likely to succeed as do-it-yourself brain surgery. An uninvolved party is much more likely to find a resolution, because earning the trust of the parties to the conflict is a key to facilitating a resolution.
Defensive driving is preferable to body work
If you've ever driven a car, you know that learning to avoid collisions is much better than learning how to fix smashed cars. So it is with toxic conflict. Keeping conflict constructive is much preferred to resolving toxic conflict.

Next time, we'll explore strategies for preventing toxic conflict. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Preventing Toxic Conflict: I  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!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenFoCXsEZuDNhBCWhgner@ChacRqagDywsbKAGQUHAoCanyon.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.

Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

A man using a chainsawDiscussion Distractions: II
Meetings are less productive than they might be, if we could learn to recognize and prevent the most common distractions. Here is Part II of a small catalog of distractions frequently seen in meetings.
1988 Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman celebrating his eightieth birthdayPolitical Framing: Strategies
In organizational politics, one class of toxic tactics is framing — accusing a group or individual by offering interpretations of their actions to knowingly and falsely make them seem responsible for reprehensible or negligent acts. Here are some strategies framers use.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer conferring in the Oval Office in 2010Grace Under Fire: II
When we debate at work, things sometimes turn unpleasant. Out of control, one party might maneuver the other into losing control. If we have better tools for recognizing these tactics, we're better able to maintain self-control. Here's Part II of such a toolkit.
Fog offshore near Cabrillo National Monument, CaliforniaClearing Conflict Fog
At times, groups can become so embroiled in destructive conflict that conventional conflict resolution becomes ineffective. How does this happen? What can we do about it?
Feeling shameShame and Bullying
Targets of bullies sometimes experience intense feelings of shame. Here are some insights that might restore the ability to think, and maybe end the bullying.

See also Conflict Management and Emotions at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The Perito Moreno Glacier in ArgentinaComing May 24: Unresponsive Suppliers: II
When a project depends on external suppliers for some tasks and materials, supplier performance can affect our ability to meet deadlines. How can communication help us get what we need from unresponsive suppliers? Available here and by RSS on May 24.
Cargo containers at a port of entryAnd on May 31: Unresponsive Suppliers: III
When suppliers have a customer orientation, we can usually depend on them. But government suppliers are a special case. Available here and by RSS on May 31.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenTCoMFTfaisYbTDNvner@ChacJvvTELnPVhranEdIoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

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 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Changing How We Change: The Essence of Agility
MasteChanging How We Change: The Essence of Agilityry of the ability to adapt to unpredictable and changing circumstances is one way of understanding the success of Agile methodologies for product development. Applying the principles of Change Mastery, we can provide the analogous benefits in a larger arena. By exploring strategies and tactics for enhancing both the resilience and adaptability of projects and portfolios, we show why agile methodologies are so powerful, and how to extend them beyond product development to efforts of all kinds. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.