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.
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 Puritan
Motto: Let’s just agree to disagree… so long as you agree with me.
Favorite Song: “Puritan Faith” by Mr. Brett (wonderfully horrible take on George Michael’s “Faith” from the history teacher you wish you had in high school)
Favorite Movie: The Crucible (especially this scene)
Behavior: In the recent article, How to Fight a Witch Hunt, I warned that all communities carry within them a dark potential to become so fundamentalist in their thinking and beliefs, that any perceived digression is viewed as an existential threat.
This type of toxic drift within the culture of an organization is usually driven the behavior of one or more die-hard “Puritans”.
The word “Puritan” originated as a pejorative term for 16th and 17th century English Protestant religious reformers who sought to “perfect” earlier reforms of the Anglican church. Many were undoubtedly people of strong faith with the best of intentions. These early puritans were known for their piety, austerity with regard to behavior and displays of wealth, and disciplined adherence to their code of faith.
While none of those things are inherently toxic, elements of their movement saw a drift towards inflexible dogma, rigid social codes, and intense self-policing of their own congregations. Driving much of this was a commonly held belief that their small sect was a vanguard that would lead humanity to a coming golden age on Earth that would herald the end-times. In short, they sought to “purify” themselves, others, and institutions in anticipation of a coming quasi-utopia.
Though founded as a reform of the existing order, the Puritans were ironically very intolerant of other forms of belief and worship and thus at odds with most of their fellow Brits.
Eventually, to the relief of themselves and presumably their neighbors, large numbers of Puritans fled to the Americas and founded the colony of Massachusetts and other settlements.
In their new colonies, they couldn’t even get along with the Quakers. I mean come on… fighting with Quakers?! Drunk history on Comedy Central pretty much nails what a drag this colony was. Yikes.
History lesson over. Let’s get back to the present.
What lessons can we learn about ourselves and workplace conflict from this little chapter of history? One lesson is that, while it’s easy to beat up on some long dead English colonists, the psychological dynamics that drove the troublesome Puritans, lurk within all of us.
Whether religious, ideological, or procedural, we all have the potential to develop beliefs and opinions that we hold so passionately we begin to see dissent in others as an existential threat to our being, rather than an opportunity to engage and learn.
This dynamic is magnified when there is a co-occurring focus on achieving some form of organizational or communal perfection. In every-day organizational life, this might manifest as a commitment to mission that is so intense that respect for the dignity and freedom of individuals is thrown under the bus on the road to the organizational promised land.
The more aspirational the mission of an organization, the more that organization is susceptible to this temptation. After all, if your organization is seeking to shape a better future for the world, right a dire injustice, or manifest a life-changing technology or innovation, what’s a few human broken eggs on the way to your omelet of paradise? In one form or another, this is the typical argument of the organizational Puritan.
The Puritan is driven by false ethical logic powered by the belief that they serve a cause or ideology greater than themselves. The pursuit of this lofty cause is used to justify treatment of others that would be considered unethical in any other circumstance. Dreams of glorious ends are used to justify the use of horrible means in the present.
We can all fall prey to this behavior in one form or another. Here are some other sure signs that we or others might be transforming into a Puritan:
Humorlessness. We begin to take ourselves and our ideas so seriously that we cannot laugh at ourselves or tolerate others poking fun at our beliefs. In my experience, this is symptom number one to watch out for, and a sure sign that someone is on the road to Puritan-ville.
Immunity to change. We begin to believe that we possess some kind of special truth or insight. The more we fall in love with our personal truth or ideas, the less we consider those things outside of our own realm of knowledge. In essence, the Puritan becomes less willing to contemplate the possibility that they might be wrong or that their understanding is incomplete. At best, we stop seeking and evaluating opposing ideas. At worst, we actively silence and repress opposing viewpoints.
Immunity to correction: Critics are now seen as enemies; not just people with whom we disagree. When others have the temerity to challenge our increasingly humorless rigidity and unwillingness to consider alternative viewpoints, we lash out instead of listening.
Obsessive concern about the behaviors and thoughts of others: As the perceived threat posed by real or imagined dissent becomes magnified, policing others around us becomes a bit of an obsession. If the Puritan is moderately successful at repressing dissenting behavior, they often take a turn down the dark alley of imagining that they can police the thoughts of others. This manifests as an over-concern for any sign, however small or obscure, that others might not agree, be on-board, or otherwise think differently. This leads to…
Black and white thinking: You are either with me or against me. You either support the initiative or you are undermining it. Believe what I believe, or you no longer belong here. Space for nuance and alternative ideas is lost. Organizations that fall prey to this suffer in the long term as dissenters either go “underground”, keeping potentially mission-critical insights to themselves, or they simply leave.
People stop saying what they really think. Instead, they say what they are supposed to think. This encourages groupthink and destroys creativity.
When the above happens on a team or organization-wide basis, you are left with an internal culture that might provide an intense sense of belonging for those who remain. However, this belonging is bought at the price of squashing the voice and agency of others.
An organization whose culture has become immune to challenge and correction from within, will inevitably become unable to adapt to change in the outside-world. The institution becomes inward-focused, rigid, and less relevant to those outside the bubble.
Do not: The Puritan likely draws intense levels of meaning and purpose from their beliefs. You should not expect them to abandon their positions cold-turkey and whole-cloth. All-or-nothing, zero-sum, head-to-head, aggressive confrontation with the Puritan might feel good on some level; especially if you’ve been subject to their rigid rule. However, this approach is only likely to confirm the Puritan’s view of themselves as a bearer of truth in world full of enemies and unbelievers. Instead…
Do: Recognize and affirm what is true in the Puritan’s belief system. When someone is desperately passionate about something there is usually more than one kernel of truth in what they have to offer.
The error of Puritan thinking is not so much about believing outright falsehoods. Instead, the Puritan takes one or two truths and then myopically tries to squeeze the whole world through that one lens.
Give the Puritan regular opportunities to be exposed to alternative viewpoints. Show them that they can hear someone else out without the world ending or being forced to give up on their own ideas. In short, help them to be passionate while also being open to new information.
One concrete way to do this is to consider establishing shared ground rules for interaction and behavior within your team and organization. As I covered in the article, Creating a Deliberately Developmental Organization, my own institution calls those ground rules “basic concepts”. Develop shared norms and commitments that allow people to have strong personal opinions, while encouraging team members to respect the intellectual freedom of others.
How do I know so much about Puritans you might ask? Sadly, I was one as a young man. It was sobering when I realized that I was the person that people were avoiding talking to during the proverbial holiday dinner.
As my wise father told me on one such occasion, “John, if you expect everyone to agree with you all the time, you are going to wind up a very lonely person.” Too true.
When I realized that I was the Puritan in the room, I had two choices. The first option was to try to surround myself only with people who think and behave exactly like me. Problem is, when you have a room full of Puritans, they typically turn on one another as they continue to find smaller and smaller things to disagree about.
Puritan-istic habits of thinking tend toward perpetual deconstruction, not creation. You cannot build a healthy and sustainable community around a demand for ideological conformity. Intellectual monocultures are just as unstable as ecological ones.
The second option for me was to accept that the world is a lot more complex than I sometimes would like it to be – and appreciate that as a good thing. In an organization, that complexity can often be uncomfortable; even disconcerting and disorienting. However, allowing for that complexity is precisely what is needed to learn and grow.
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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