We all play a role in conflict development and supervisors need to help all team members understand how conflict develops and what we can do to prevent it . This is critical to enabling the team's ability to maintain harmony, maximize its strengths and consistently exceed expectations.
The most influential book I have read on this topic is Leadership and Self Deception from the Arbinger Institute. The model of collusion presented in this book provides an excellent explanation of our tendency to distort others' actions into "self-justifying" reasons for judging others (while seeing ourselves as good, hardworking and honest). In reality, this self-image is seldom the truth, as we often engage in negative politics and confrontations that simply hinder the teams' ability to achieve the best results possible. The consequences can range from team members avoiding each other to full-blown HR issues requiring hours of valuable time. This often results in less than stellar performance and a huge waste of resources.
The graphic below does a wonderful job of illustrating how conflict usually develops. Starting with step #1, someone acts, and in step #2, we “ass_u_me” that our distortion of their action is what the other person actually intended. We then act (step #3) in a way that actually is intended as some sort of retaliation or attack. We then come to step #4, where the other person sees our retaliation or attack. At this point, it really does not matter what their actual intent was in step #1. By now, conflict has "locked-in" and we are “in the box.” This is completely irrational but amazingly common.
Based on our tendency to distort others' actions, we tend to see what others do in ways that maximize our frustration. I often find that our assumptions about others' intentions are wrong. It is a lot harder, however, for us to give them the benefit of the doubt and drum up the courage to ask the other person's intent. Instead, we typically just get frustrated from someone else's action, let that frustration grow into negative energy and allow the shadow areas of our personalities to lead us into conflict.
Authority can be a double edge sword!
Imagine how unfair this process can be when management distorts what staff members do in ways that affect an employee’s performance rating. This can be one of the most damaging actions a supervisor can make. When we are given supervisory authority over others, we have to be extremely careful to verify our assumptions as authority can enhance our need to be “right” and justified in our assumptions. There is nothing more detrimental to staff morale than being incorrectly judged by management.
In addition to hurting employee morale, supervisors can cause an immense amount of damage if they incorrectly interpret the actions of their peers and share their distorted assumptions with their direct reports. This often leads to issues across departments in an organization.
Supervisors, above everyone else, must understand the damage they can cause by engaging in collusion with direct reports and their peers! If they don’t, they can negatively affect performance in their department and across the organization.
What is a supervisor to do? How can management ensure that distortion and assumptions are not driving their actions? While we may not always be able to maintain harmony and completely avoid our tendency to distort others’ actions, using feedback as a strategic organizational tool can greatly improve our odds of avoiding costly assumptions in the workplace.