Stephen was the manager of a work-group in a company where he was held strictly accountable for the milestones, deliverables, and the overall performance of his work-group. But Stephen constantly struggled with destructive conflict between two individuals (Sal and Christy) who had radically different approaches to problem-solving on key projects that had high corporate visibility – the basis of Stephen’s compensation. He had tried almost everything to minimize the amount of destructive conflict in the work-group and improve its performance. He has had off-site retreats, done personality testing, and held myriad team building exercises to try to transform the conflict from destructive to constructive. When destructive conflict erupted in meetings in the form of criticism, contempt, defensiveness, or stonewalling, Stephen tried to intervene using the problem-solving tools the group had learned and he tried to discourage this inappropriate behavior by giving Sal and Christy marginal performance ratings and decreased compensation. Stephen had even tried to transfer Sal (the most problematic person) to another department. But each time he tried to take positive steps to correct the situation, Sal and/or Christy went around him to Stephen’s boss Jane who intervened and then reversed some or all of Stephen’s corrective actions. Subsequently, Jane attended one of Stephen’s staff meetings to “set things straight” while Stephen was expected to sit there quietly and say nothing. Jane’s boss does the same thing to her. The Board of Directors does the same thing to the company’s CEO.
So if destructive conflict like the kind in Stephen’s work-group is so debilitating and squanders so much time and energy (resources that are unavailable to achieve goals and objectives), why do organizations tolerate and endure it? There are at least two answers. First, work-groups often lack the ability to change the organizational structures, systems, and culture within which they are embedded, and this accounts for over 85% of the causes of destructive conflict. Second, some work-group members view the cognitive dissonance and psychological pain of staying in destructive conflict as less of a price to pay than the inner turmoil and cognitive dissonance that would be created by disrupting the current way their world is configured. In fact, one of the reasons why deep, sustainable change is so difficult is because it requires physiological changes to the human brain. Studies have shown that the number of synaptic connections in the brains of infants increases to the degree that they interact with their parents, other people, and their environment. During the first years of life, the brain has a high degree of elasticity, but as children mature their interaction in families and the larger culture creates an elaborate system of synaptic, neuropsychological structures that defines how we “see” ourselves, others, and the world. In fact, Clotaire Rapaille argues that the cultural imprinting on the human brain is so powerful that by the time a child is seven years old, she’s not just a seven-year-old girl, she’s a seven-year-old French, American, or Japanese girl. So when the world outside our heads is “mapped” to (and configured like) our inner cognitive and emotional structures we experience a sense of comfort and psychological safety. When the configuration of the world does not “map” to our inner structures this creates cognitive and emotional dissonance that threatens our sense of “reality” and our identity. As adults, managers and staff members who see the world differently and have access to resources and power, begin to shape the day-to-day realities of organizational life to conform to the synaptic structures in their heads.
People like Sal and Christy live in two “different worlds” formed by different neuropsychological structures and their destructive conflict is actually a battle to either maintain, or reconfigure, the day-to-day operations of Stephen’s work-group to more closely align with the cognitive configuration in their heads. Consequently, Sal and Christy induce behaviors and emotional responses in each other with explicit and implicit messages with the goal of getting the other person to: a) see the world the way they do, b) do what they want, and c) get the results they want. At a more fundamental level, Sal and Christy are fighting to maintain or reconfigure the world in which Stephen’s work-group operates as a way of: a) decreasing their individual levels of cognitive and emotional dissonance, and b) supporting their mutually exclusive ways of seeing which are not aligned with (or in the best interest of) the overall organization. There is little hope of ever stopping this kind of destructive conflict apart from top managers consciously and purposely building effective structures and systems and an Intended Culture™ of excellence. In the absence of well-defined structures and systems, patterns-of-interaction driven by personality will rule and dominate the day-to-day realities of organizational life despite how much money it takes off the bottom line.