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

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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Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

Conflict Haiku
When tempers flare, or tension fills the air, many of us contribute to the stew, often without realizing that we do. Here are some haiku that describe some of the many stances we choose that can lead groups into tangles, or let those tangles persist once they form.
You worthless piece of trash!Hurtful Clichés: I
Much of our day-to-day conversation consists of harmless clichés: "How goes it?" or "Nice to meet you." Some other clichés aren't harmless, but they're so common that we use them without thinking. Maybe it's time for some thought.
The Johari WindowAssumptions and the Johari Window: 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.
Smiling children. Nobody knows how to smile like kids do.Social Safety Margins
As our personal workloads increase, we endure more stress and more time pressure. Inevitably, we have less time for the social niceties that protect us from accidentally hurting each other's feelings. When are we most at risk of incidental harm, and what can we do about it?
Six atoms in a Schrödinger "cat" statePreventing Toxic Conflict: I
Conflict resolution skills are certainly useful. Even more advantageous are toxic conflict prevention skills, and skills that keep constructive conflict from turning toxic.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Raquel Welch (left) and Gilda Radner (right) from a @Cite{Saturday Night Live rehearsal, April 24, 1976Coming December 20: Conceptual Mondegreens
When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
An engineer attending a meeting with 14 other engineersAnd on December 27: On Assigning Responsibility for Creating Trouble
When we assign responsibility for troubles that bedevil us, we often make mistakes. We can be misled by language, stereotypes, and the assumptions we make about others. Available here and by RSS on December 27.

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When Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applicationswe talk, listen, send or read emails, read or write memos, or when we leave or listen to voice mail messages, we're communicating person-to-person. And whenever we communicate person-to-person, we risk being misunderstood, offending others, feeling hurt, and being confused. There are so many ways for things to go wrong that we could never learn how to fix all the problems. A more effective approach avoids problems altogether, or at least minimizes their occurrence. In this very interactive program we'll explain — and show you how to use — a model of inter-personal communications that can help you stay out of the ditch. We'll place particular emphasis on a very tricky situation — expressing your personal power. In those moments of intense involvement, when we're most likely to slip, you'll have a new tool to use to keep things constructive. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

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