No one is immune to the corrosive effects of workplace drama and toxicity. A study at the University of Florida found that team productivity dropped 52% when professionals were treated rudely by a colleague. Fortunately, even though workplace conflict and drama seem chaotic, they are predictable and — more importantly — reversible.
Virtually everyone wants to be part of a high-functioning organization, where individuals and their work are recognized, valued and respected. So, why is it that despite the best intentions, workplace cultures decline and deteriorate? Why do protracted conflicts metastasize? Why can’t we just all get along?
“We’re only human” isn’t an incorrect answer, but it is overly simplistic. More accurately, we humans have a set of tendencies, biases and quirks that often work against our best interests. Over the last several decades, neuroscience research has done a lot to illuminate these behaviors and how to work with and around them.
For example, the negativity bias is the human brain’s tendency to inflate negative experience and underrepresent positive ones. This inclination has a wide range of implications, shedding light on everything from negative assumptions to social anxiety. Using these insights, you can prime the pump for success, on both a micro and a macro level. Here are some strategies you can use to keep a high-performing organization healthy and short-circuit potentially harmful behaviors.
Resist the Temptation to Jump Right in
In an organization with deep-rooted, escalated conflict, it’s tempting to jump to corrective action. It’s a common and understandable impulse to bring entrenched parties to the table without a strategy or well-defined process. However, it’s absolutely critical to prepare them first. This one-on-one time is the difference between constructive resolution and losing control during a tense conversation. Neither person should arrive at the table until he or she has had help separating facts from interpretation, replaced personality attributions with curiosity about the other person’s behavior and identified future-oriented requests that will break dysfunctional patterns from the past.
Eliminate “Drama-venting” From the Repertoire
As a culture, we’ve been taught that venting relieves frustration. Research has shown, however, that venting actually makes us more aggressive and doesn’t provide tangible benefits. Think of it as the sugar rush of social bonding: Fun while it lasts but draining and, ultimately, toxic.
Rather than having a fact-based conversation with a peer to problem-solve, drama-venting exaggerates and vilifies people and personalities in hopes of attracting new loyalists to one person’s point of view. While this approach creates the illusion of camaraderie, in the long term, it destroys morale, deepens resentment and fuels mistrust.
Start Seeing Factions
Workplaces with entrenched conflict generally have multiple factions that range in size from two people to dozens or even hundreds of individuals. Sometimes, factions are formed intentionally when an aggrieved individual looks to recruit support for his or her side. Sometimes, they coalesce more subtly through activities like blaming another department for low productivity. Others are formed over widespread concerns or grievances; for example, when sweeping change comes to an organization, the staff may break into factions based on how invested they are in the old way of doing things.
Regardless of how they are formed, navigating factions is critical to keeping your finger on the pulse of your organization, especially if it is experiencing escalated conflict. In many cases, these organizations carry the conflict forward after the individuals at the center have reconciled or even left the organization.
Reciprocity, or the human tendency to mirror other people’s treatment of us, is a staggeringly reliable predictor of behavior. In his research, biofeedback expert John Gottman found that we reflect the actions of others 96% of the time.
Reciprocity works both ways — whether we treat someone with contempt or with respect. With some clever thinking, you can use this knowledge to set up conversations and initiatives for success. Use reciprocity to set a positive opening tone or to interrupt what would otherwise be a cycle of reciprocal hostility.
Access the Power of Assertiveness and Warmth
One critical insight to emerge from modern neuroscience is a deeper understanding of the conditions that make the human mind receptive to change, the most important of which is a sense of security. (Remember, the negativity bias predisposes us to insecurity.) You can tap into this powerful enabler by approaching difficult issues with assertiveness and warmth.
The idea of warmth in an organizational setting is off-putting to some, because the term is associated with being “soft,” or coddling people. In fact, warmth and accountability exist on completely different axes, with coldness or hostility opposed to warmth and passiveness opposed to accountability.
Approaching conflict with assertiveness and warmth stops the negativity bias from shutting down change before it can begin. It also makes the other person part of the solution by upholding accountability and consequences.
A demoralized workplace or protracted conflict can sap the vitality out of a team or an entire organization. Fortunately, the more we learn about human behavior, the more we can sidestep the universal but self-defeating habits that make cultures toxic. By leveraging these simple strategies, you can help employees build the organizational culture they desire — and deserve.