Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 5;   February 3, 2016: Patterns of Conflict Escalation: Part I

Patterns of Conflict Escalation: Part I

by

Toxic workplace conflicts often begin as simple disagreements. Many then evolve into intensely toxic conflict following recognizable patterns.
Sen. Robert Packwood, Republican of Oregon

Sen. Robert Packwood, Republican of Oregon. He was a Senator from 1969 until he resigned under threat of expulsion in 1995. On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, 1992, shortly after the 1992 election in which Sen. Packwood was re-elected, the Washington Post reported that at least ten women staffers and lobbyists had complained that Senator Packwood had made unwanted, forceful, sexual advances on them, including groping and forceful kissing. The Senator had denied the women's claims, and attempted to erode their credibility. But on November 20, Senator Packwood issued an apology that has become famous as a template for non-apology apologies. It read, in part, "If any of my comments or actions have indeed been unwelcome or if I have conducted myself in any way that has caused any individual discomfort or embarrassment, for that I am sincerely sorry." The "If" in this statement is what makes it a non-apology.

Photo courtesy U.S. Senate.

Conflict resolution skills are universally recognized as valuable assets in modern organizations. And rightly so, because some people know, almost intuitively, exactly how to escalate conflicts from mild disagreements to near-warfare levels, without actually being caught doing it. While these destructive techniques might be of some short-term value to those who employ them, their use threatens the organizational mission.

Early recognition of these destructive patterns can dramatically reduce the incidence of toxic conflict in teams or groups that must frequently collaborate. That's why knowing how to recognize these patterns of conflict escalation is a skill perhaps even more valuable than conflict resolution.

Here is Part I of a little catalog of patterns that people use — sometimes inadvertently — to convert simple disagreements into workplace warfare. This part emphasizes behavior. Part II emphasizes patterns of thinking.

Accusations of marginal norm violations
Behavioral norms, explicit or implicit, govern social behavior in groups. For example, most workplace teams regard raised voices in meetings as violations of behavioral norms. (See "Preventing Toxic Conflict: Part II," Point Lookout for October 15, 2014, for more on behavioral norms)
Certainly identifying norm violations is necessary at times. But claims not supported by evidence, or claims of marginal violations, can be tools for advancing toxic conflict. Although such assertions can be genuine complaints about the behavior of alleged offenders, they can also be initial aggressive acts, or retaliations for perceived past transgressions. A pattern of claims about marginal transgressions can be a signal worth attending to.
Rejecting apologies
When someone (the Offeror) offers an apology to someone else (the Recipient), and the Recipient declines the offer or refuses to accept the apology, the Recipient deprives the group of an opportunity to put the offense behind it. That might be appropriate, if the apology is insincere or if the offense merits disciplinary action.
But if an apology is a suitable remedy for the offense, declining the apology can actually be an aggressive act intended to escalate the conflict. The rejection might appear innocent, or perhaps petulant, even though it is an act intended to deepen the conflict.
Non-apology apologies
Apologies that aren't Early recognition of patterns of
conflict escalation can dramatically
reduce the incidence of toxic
conflict in teams or groups that
must frequently collaborate
actually apologies have become so common that there is a term for them: non-apology apologies. They can appear in any of various forms. For example, "mistakes were made." Or the very popular "I'm sorry if you were offended (or hurt, or harmed, …)."
Although some people do offer non-apology apologies out of ignorance, it's unsafe to assume that non-apology apologies are always innocent. Because non-apology apologies can sometimes be acts of aggression, probing for truth is wise. To effectively prevent the non-apology apology from escalating the conflict, a third party can try to elicit a sincere apology, which must include a solid element of contrition. To the extent that such attempts do fail, the non-apology apology is more likely to be an aggressive act. For more on effective apologies, see "Demanding Forgiveness," Point Lookout for June 18, 2003.

We'll continue next time with more patterns of conflict escalation. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Patterns of Conflict Escalation: Part II  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? rbrenFweZbKfcFmcDrEHfner@ChacPOQIcFTNZonbSrLpoCanyon.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 multi-function phoneDeniable Intimidation
Some people achieve or maintain power by intimidating others in deniable ways. Too often, when intimidators succeed, their success rests in part on our unwillingness to resist, or on our lack of skill. By understanding their tactics, and by preparing responses, we can deter intimidators.
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?
Stainless steel cutleryNew 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?
Richard Posner, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in ChicagoSome Subtleties of ad hominem Attacks
Groups sometimes make mistakes based on faulty reasoning used in their debates. One source of faulty reasoning is the ad hominem attack. Here are some insights that help groups recognize and avoid this class of errors.
Bowling pins for ten-pin bowlingSeventeen Guidelines About Workplace Bullying
Bullying is a complex social pattern. Thinking clearly about bullying is difficult in the moment because our emotions can distract us. Here are some short insights about bullying that are easy to remember in the moment.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Balancing talk time and the value of the contributionComing March 29: Virtual Blowhards
Controlling meeting blowhards is difficult enough in face-to-face meetings, but virtual meetings present next-level problems, because techniques that work face-to-face are unavailable. Here are eight tactics for controlling virtual blowhards. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
kudzu enveloping a Mississippi landscapeAnd on April 5: Listening to Ramblers
Ramblers are people who can't get to the point. They ramble, they get lost in detail, and listeners can't follow their logic, if there is any. How can you deal with ramblers while maintaining civility and decorum? Available here and by RSS on April 5.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenhZLXCxSviTItCCMMner@ChacpXttpzxajdLsCWtfoCanyon.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 are some upcoming dates for this program:

Conflict Resolution Skills for Leaders
ConflConflict Resolution Skills for Leadersict is inherent in collaborative work. When conflict is constructive, it produces better outcomes. When it's destructive, it can be an insurmountable obstacle to success. In this program, we explore the connections between the outcomes of collaboration and conflict in both of its forms. And we emphasize the skills needed most by leaders. The leader's task is to manage conflict so as to ensure that the group achieves its objective with its capacity to collaborate intact, or even enhanced. Rick Brenner shows team leaders and team sponsors the techniques they need to manage team conflict for relationship safety and better outcomes. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Influencing Outcomes Without Authority
Your Influencing Outcomes Without Authorityability to influence others — whether upward, downward, laterally, or within a team — always depends on both the quality of your relationships with the people you influence, and on your perception and their perception of your personal power. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you the techniques for making things happen not by using formal organizational power, but by using informal, personal power. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Strategies for Leading Teams in Hard Times
When Strategies for Leading Teams in Hard Timesa project team is on task, the contributions of leaders are important, and little noticed. Sometimes the team encounters unexpected difficulty, or requirements change, or budgets are reduced, or any of a number of other things might happen. In these cases, the leader must make or facilitate decisions about how to respond or how to revise the plan. We get through it somehow. Hard times are something else altogether. Despondency, disillusionment, resource shortages, unexpected and severe failure of the plan, and toxic conflict can erode morale. How can leaders deal with such situations? Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Strategies for Technical Debt: A Workshop for Enterprise Leaders
TechnTechnical Debt Management for Enterprise Leadersical debt is more than mere IT jargon. It's a metaphor that refers to the accumulation of technical artifacts that really ought to be retired, replaced, rewritten, re-implemented, or, if absent, created. We can find technical debt in almost any system, including those that seem to be working well. So what's the problem? The problem is the "interest charges." Systems carrying technical debt are more difficult to maintain, more difficult to extend or enhance, and more difficult to use, than they would be if we "retired" the debt. This engaging and eye-opening program points the way to a path that leads your organization out of technical debt, to make it more adaptable, more transformable, and more agile. 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.