Some forms of constructive workplace conflict can generate productive and creative conversations that lead to genuine innovation. However, fighting in the workplace is a different kettle of fish; it is nearly always destructive and it is nearly always what clients really mean when they ask me to consult over workplace conflict.
University of Pennsylvania research fellow Annie McKee, an expert on leadership, identifies three destructive forms of conflict: denial (“I don’t see an issue here” followed by a personal putdown when you try to explain – “You’re being illogical”), open aggression or bullying and passive aggression.
Bullying is amongst the most pernicious because bullies tend to recruit vicious followers who will willingly do their bidding. Passive aggression is insidiously destructive because it appears superficially supportive when it’s anything but.
Tracking the route cause of these destructive forms of conflict is crucial. McKee suggests that the top three reasons are insecurity, the desire for power and control and lastly habitual victimhood.
Everyone’s insecure about something. When it is triggered, we can act well below our true capabilities, shying away from disagreements and hiding our errors. When we are dominated by the desire for power and control, we are hiding insecurities or trying to gain credit by seeking to work above rather than with others. If we are drawn to habitual victimhood, we attribute all power to others (habitual bullies will love it) and secretly excuse ourselves from responsibility by playing the ‘I had no choice’ card.
Being fully present to the emotional dynamics of destructive conflict is crucial. This is the necessary prelude to genuine empathy for our own and other people’s insecurities.
Feelings in the workplace matter and they matter a lot because they influence what goes on in powerful ways. Understanding where they are coming from through deep self-awareness is the initial step out of vicious cycles into virtuous ones.