This is How the Fight Started…And Why It Keeps Going

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Want to see a fight at work?  Easy! Just add one of these. Want to see a civil war at work? Add more than one. 

  1. Perceptions of unfairness, including perceptions of favoritism. 
  2. Feeling disrespected, feeling unheard, or feeling as if one’s voice is muted.
  3. Competition over insufficient resources or inequitable distribution of resources.
  4. Dishonesty and gossip.
  5. An atmosphere wherein it is unsafe to openly address conflict and disagreements.
  6. Leaders who don’t address unacceptable behavior or work that doesn’t meet quality or quantity standards. 
  7. Incivility and a lack of emotional intelligence. 
  8. The need to “cover” and/or code switch.
  9. Insufficient communication and unclear goals and responsibilities.
  10. Genuine differences in perspectives, i.e., generational differences, values/religious/moral differences, etc.
  11. Feeling as if colleagues and teammates are unqualified or incapable.
  12. Inaccessible leaders.
  13. Leaders who don’t keep their word.
  14. Unfair or insufficient compensation, rewards, and recognition.
  15. Lack of accountability.


There’s one thing that all of these fight-starters have in common: something that is important to at least one of the parties involved is threatened. Once the threat is in place, here is what happens:  


Person 1 says or does something that triggers Person 2. Person 2’s trigger is pulled due to any of the following reasons (or a combination of them all):

A. Unresolved issue from the past (could be work-related or personal);

B. Ongoing pattern of behavior that is unwelcomed or otherwise problematic; or

C. Concern that they are going to be negatively impacted.

The most interesting part of what triggers Person 2 is that Person 2’s trigger takes the form of an immediate story that informs Person 2’s stress response (i.e, fight, flight, freeze, fawn, flooding, or fatigue). The immediate story is the assumption that the stress reaction relies upon, but the person doesn’t take the time to craft the story. The story just happens based on A, B, or C. It’s the biological version of the “the devil made me do it,” and it occurs instantaneously! What’s more is that the immediate story is not always accurate, but it is the brain’s automatic response for self-protection. The brain is focused on survival, not accuracy. Finally, as Person 2’s story unfolds, Person 1’s story kicks in, and the cycle starts within them. 


To make matters worse, Daniel Kahneman’s research in, Thinking, Fast and Slow, tells us that people don’t do the work to change their automatic responses unless they encounter a situation wherein it becomes unavoidable that their automatic is EXTREMELY wrong, not just “inconsequentially” wrong or slightly off. Essentially, people have to encounter a significant consequence in order to stop relying on their automatic responses. The gateway to controlling these automatic responses is self-awareness and self-control, which are the fundamental elements of emotional intelligence.


This is where the workplace provides a tremendous opportunity for people. Because the workplace typically doesn’t present life-threatening situations (there are exceptions, for example, individuals who work in law enforcement, first responders, etc), it offers a unique context in which people can learn to control their immediate reactions that lead to conflict, negatively impact engagement, and damage organizational culture. The unique context is that their physical lives are NOT at stake while their financial lives are; thus, creating an incentive to manage their workplace behavior and relationships. 


Just because the stress response is automatic, it doesn’t mean that people are haplessly subject to their brains. Research from the Harvard Business Review suggests that people need to want to improve (which usually happens as a result of seeing the negative outcomes of their lack of emotional intelligence) and they need feedback because they don’t often see how their behaviors impact others. When responding to unacceptable behavior, supervisors and colleagues play a pivotal role in helping one another manage workplace stress responses. 


The cycle of conflict often seems continuous because dealing with conflict is uncomfortable. Further, many organizations simply lack cultural expectations or don’t enforce formal protocols as it relates to confronting problems and having difficult conversations before those problems become entrenched. In turn, Person 2 doesn’t get the “SOMETHING IS EXTREMELY WRONG” signal to the brain that they need to help to compel behavior change. Consequently, the problems continue because the brain knows that it can get away with the behavior, even if it knows the behavior is wrong. Another way to look at it is the brain also believes it’s response is still kind of okay.


So, if you want to reduce negative conflict on your team, you’ve got to face difficult conversations individually and collectively, encourage communication and the exercise of emotional intelligence among others, and implement a consistent system of rewards and consequences.

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