Updated: Feb 18, 2019
This series of articles explores the toxic behavior profiles that persistently generate workplace conflict and provides tips on how to respond.
In Creative vs. Toxic Conflict at Work, I discussed one of the key features that distinguishes toxic conflict from creative conflict.
Creative conflict is rooted in the dynamics between people. In creative conflict, the motives and goals of group members are typically healthy and focused on a sincere desire to solve concrete external problems and challenges.
Toxic conflict is typically rooted in the personalities of individual people. While creative conflict is rooted in an external problem, toxic conflict is rooted in the problematic behavior of one or more individuals.
Thankfully, most of the behavior that generates toxic conflict is common and predictable. This means that you can plan ahead for behaviors that are certain to recur.
Think of these “Toxic Workplace Behavior Profile” articles as your top-secret files on how to prepare and respond strategically to the most disruptive and toxic behaviors in your workplace.
Code Name: The Peacemonger
Motto: I’m great. How are you?
Favorite Song: Everything is Awesome
Favorite Movie: Anything animated, preferably by Pixar
Behavior: Can’t we all just get along? No peacemonger, we can’t.
Yes, we know that all this office tension makes you feel uncomfortable. It makes all of us uncomfortable too. That’s why we need to deal with it.
In the recent article, Stay in the Problem, I discussed the dangers of resolving conflicts too soon. We humans don’t like uncertainty. And conflict brings bigtime uncertainty.
For some of us, the drive to control the fear of uncertainty in relationships can develop into a compulsion. It can turn you into a peacemonger.
The peacemonger doesn’t just prefer things to be peaceful. They deeply need things to be peaceful – even if that means squashing, denying or contriving superficial resolution to conflicts.
This fear of conflict usually manifests as either avoidance or control-oriented behaviors.
The avoidant peacemonger tends to minimize conflict and squash negative feelings in themselves and others. This is the person who papers-over disagreements and minimizes hurts. They frequently table tough discussions for another day and another meeting that never seems to happen.
As a supervisor, they will go to great lengths to avoid open and real discussion of thorny issues. They will shift staff to other departments, alter who-supervises-whom, move desks – anything that will stave off the interpersonal confrontations that they fear.
This can waste a tremendous amount of time, attention and resources. Relational conflicts are hardwired to come to the surface. It takes a lot of energy, and even creativity, to persistently push issues and feelings back underground in a team.
This mix of hyper-vigilance and conflict avoidance is exhausting and a leading cause of leadership burnout.
The longer conflicts are avoided and minimized, the more likely it will be that workplace relationships unravel in ways that are unpredictable, emotionally magnified and chaotic. (i.e. all hell breaks loose.)
The control-orientated peacemonger is the mirror image of the avoidant variety, but the results are the same. This person loves to be the first on the scene during a conflict – so that they can take over, control the problem and make it go away.
An avoidant peacemonger might even pair up with a control-oriented peacemonger. Frequently, a senior leader who habitually seeks to avoid conflict will use another leader or staff member to intervene, control and make problems go away.
They develop a symbiotic relationship and might even believe that they excel at handling conflict, when in reality they are just pushing it away.
Sometimes this type of dysfunction can take over whole HR departments. Instead of leading others to proactively address the roots of conflict, the department becomes the conflict suppressor for avoidant leadership – keeping a lid on things and kicking the conflict can down the road.
Control-oriented peacemongers will often use the outer forms and buzzwords of healthy conflict engagement but will use them to suppress rather than explore the conflict. Conversations will orient around the peacemonger’s feelings and needs instead of those of the actual direct stakeholders in the conflict.
For instance, the peacemonger might invite others to “have a conversation and share our feelings about what happened”, when what this actually means is: “Let me tell you why this all needs to stop because it’s making me uncomfortable and that’s not okay here.”
Do Not: When trying to shift the behavior of a peacemonger, remember that this person is rarely seeking to harm anyone. They are simply experiencing a more extreme form of the discomfort and fear that we all have regarding conflict.
As such, avoid using an overly adversarial approach or blaming language.
Do: Acknowledge the positives. The peacemonger recognizes that there is a problem (that’s great!) and is trying to do something about it (also great!). Make sure that they hear this from you.
Reinforce that you both want the same outcome – happy, healthy co-workers with strong, positive relationships.
Then you need to help them talk about their personal feelings and fears. Most people originally became peacemongers for understandable reasons. If you can build enough trust, give them the space to talk about their personal stories around conflict.
For instance, if they grew up in a house with lots of sudden explosive anger, maybe generally keeping a lid on things and being avoidant wasn’t such a bad idea as a child. It might have helped them survive – emotionally and physically.
Or, if they’ve had a long relationship with a self-medicating addict, or have had addiction issues themselves, perhaps they learned to rely on pain avoidance as a primary coping strategy. If so, leading conflict principles such as Embrace the Suck are going to be a long, hard sell.
If they grew up around neglectful or disconnected caregivers, they simply might not have seen much role-modeling around conflict – because no one really cared enough to fight. And any conflict that did arise, however small, felt like an existential threat to an already tenuous relationship.
Or maybe they were just raised in an environment that pressured them to be nice all the time. I’m looking at you, Minnesota.
All of the above examples are common stories from my work helping leaders change their peacemongering ways. Universally, encourage your local peacemonger to:
Speak about their own feelings and in the first-person. Don’t let them speak for others. Ask them to speak for themselves. Don’t let them avoid taking personal risks by hiding in third-person language. (I.e., It’s not, “We are upset” or, “The organization is concerned.” Instead, it’s, “I am upset” and, “I am concerned.”)
Process their own personal stories around conflict. See above.
Experience real and meaningful conflict engagement – repeatedly and over time. You will need to show the peacemonger how to have the conversations and confrontations they have been avoiding. They need to see that their fear of conflict is wildly disproportional to the actual risks. You need to show them how it’s done, perhaps many times. Don’t underestimate how long this will take. A year or more of repeated practice and exposure would not be uncommon. Gradually help them to take more and more responsibility for leading these interactions on their own as they overcome their fears.
Check out the Leading Conflict store for practical and hard-hitting resources that will help you put these ideas into action.
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