Avoiding the Violence of Dysfunction

As we progress through the shared issues of a dysfunctional situation, we can see that the most apparent warning that things are going wrong seems to be the violence in attitudes.  When we progress from rational thought and dialogue to emotion, we begin to lose grip on the objective points that can help us overcome intractability.

We attach a certain amount of emotion to our perception when choosing sides because of our own values.  I happen to be talking about intractability in what outsiders see as a relatively innocuous situation: labor relations.  I say “relatively” because while those of you in these situations see it as literally a life or death situation, while outsiders may see these same situations as a protracted disagreement in which neither side is willing to work with the other.

While we on the outside may see some of the points as being petty, we also aren’t vested in the situation and it is hard for us to be sympathetic when we see a larger problem, like the survival of BOTH sides of the conflict as being important.

When we consider some of the really intractable conflicts that have gone on over time and seem to have no resolution, we find that intractability is not a hard and fast condition.  The situation is not simply intractable or not; it exists on a continuum that on any given day and under any given environment, may trend to one end or the other of that continuum.

At these levels, such as in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, abortion, and homosexual rights, the sides are very clear and lines have been drawn that don’t waver much.  These kinds of situations really illustrate how in our own condition, we probably aren’t as far away from each other in what we want as we may feel that we are. What seems to be real intractability can often be resolved through negotiation or mediation IF the friction can be detected early enough, that is, before real damage begins to occur.

In 2003, Heidi and Guy Burgess wrote an article for Beyondintractability.org that described intractable conflict.  One of the conditions they discussed was the presence of “irreducible, high-stakes, win-lose” characteristics that have no “zone of possible agreement”.  As they described it, these were situations in which any solution would “require giving up some very important value”. In any situation where we are at odds with one another, we really have to think about what we think we will achieve by continuing to maintain our ground, in comparison to what we stand to lose by working together.

It may not seem like it, but in some cases, it is simply a matter of losing face.  We aren’t talking about real values here, when we consider what we stand to lose by releasing thousands of dollars of uniform shirts from storage because they have what is considered to be the “wrong logo” on them, especially when the consequence is a lesser amount of protection for the individuals wearing them.  There comes a point when you have to say, is this really worth the battle we are fighting? However, when you are faced with wearing the “correct” uniform that has the “right logo” on it and you wear the unapproved, “old” logo and expect that there won’t be a reaction, well, you are deluding yourself.

The “violence” in this case is harsh and unrelenting; there are clearly attacks and retribution being undertaken on both sides that have created escalation, and for what ends?  Now the situation is so bad that the perceived cost of walking away from the fight is seen as higher than the cost of staying in, and the vicious cycle of escalation continues. There are, as the article said, positive things we can do to “transform the conflict from a destructive one to a constructive one, even if a full resolution cannot soon be found”.  But while everyone likes to say these are life and death issues (at least in the dysfunctional situations I am pointing out), they aren’t always so black and white.

For example, closing a fire station clearly has cost to the community.  We can argue that doing so may increase the chance of injury or fatality.  However, that risk needs to be unemotionally conveyed to those who foot the bill, they must be educated, and they must have a choice.  If they choose to disregard warnings, then they have been warned.  But so long as these decisions aren’t being made in a vacuum, we as leaders can only do so much and like I said earlier, we all have bosses, no matter who you are.

Permitting escalation of conflict as a means of getting your way is wrong.  It is the pot stirring that goes on in some organizations that I find most repulsive; passive-aggressive activity meant to keep an organization in disequilibrium in an effort to get your own way, whether that is to distract others from your own incompetence, or because you find amusement in watching people suffer.  These are the types of people that need to be isolated from the discussion and even, as I have had to do before, removed from the equation altogether.  The damage they do toward positive forward progress of the organization cannot be adequately measured.

These days, we call them trolls, but these individuals are present in different forms in differing contexts.  Regardless, they only muddy the water, they perpetuate hatred and fear, and as Burgess and Burgess wrote, they make “moving into a new relationship with the ‘enemy’ especially difficult.”  These people may even be the Chief of Department, the elected Labor representatives, politicians, or other key stakeholders.

Trollery isn’t limited to nameless, faceless POS who hide behind pseudonyms in internet comments or forums. Our goal as real leaders trying to engage others for the health of our organization, which is, presumably, to do the right thing for the people we serve, is to keep those individuals at bay and work with those who can actually create positive change to move forward in meaningful conversation.

More on the subject tomorrow.  And if you happen to be out and about, swing by Fire Engineering Talk Radio and check out my first shot on there.  I critiqued it this morning and clearly have a lot to learn about being a panelist on a talk radio show, but I had a lot of fun, I enjoyed the dialogue, and hope to do this again soon.

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