Easing Workplace Conflict

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filed under Communication.

One of the more memorable behavioral psychology experiments in the 1960s involved chickens placed bodily in boxes from which only their heads and necks protruded.  Behaviorism contributed mightily to our understanding of how people learn and what factors influence behavior.  At the same time, behavioral psychologists sometimes did odd things to confirm their theories.

These boxed chickens were placed next to each other and then individually given electric shocks and other types of “aversive stimuli.”  The chickens had no clue as to when a shock might occur.

What happened?

When a chicken received a shock, it turned and pecked its neighbor.  Sound like your workplace?   It didn’t matter who the neighbor was.  They got pecked when the chicken was shocked. This is called “elicited aggression.”  Psychologists have since demonstrated that elicited aggression occurs in many species, including our own.

Here’s a partial list of what kind of shock, a.k.a pain, people might be experiencing today. Which boxes would you check?

  • Economic trauma:  Loss of job, loss of income or savings; loss of revenue streams and customers, belt-tightening and budget cuts.
  • Institutional changes: Company restructuring, department mergers, leadership shifts and staffing cuts.
  • Post-traumatic reactions: Lingering fear, mistrust or recurring concern even when things seem to be getting better.
  • Personal matters:  From problems with a family member and a bad diagnosis to loss of a pet and traffic.  Also, the ego and its perceptions of injury.
  • Cultural differences: Different communication and work styles, changing expectations and demographics, increased demands – more opportunities for cultural “rubs” and disconnects.

Then there’s the daily news.

What we know.

Neurologists have studied what parts of the brain are activated and what factors determine or mediate aggression of all sorts.*   In a 2009 review, authors Allen Seigal and Jeff Victoroff said, “To different degrees at different ages and in different individuals, the modulation and control of aggressive tendencies can be controlled through conditioning and related learning principles engaging the massive human cerebral cortex.”

In other words, sometimes some people can learn to behave better. Because we’re smart.

What the chickens tell us.

Elicited aggression has been studied for more than fifty years.  Yet, the chickens still offer these commonsense clues for easing workplace conflict.

Get out of the boxes.  Those who feel trapped are more likely to be crabby and mean.  When things are unpredictable and people feel they have no control over the consequences of their behavior, they are also more likely to become helpless: they simply give up and stop performing. A solution? Give people choices – even small ones, as long as they’re real choices.

Give a clue.  Most people don’t like surprises and no one likes bad surprises.  Let people know what’s going on in ways that match diverse personal and cultural styles. When reliable information is provided on a routine basis and when their input is sought and used, people perform better.  They stop worrying about what’s to come. Not only do they snap less at each other, they stop fueling the fire with gossip.

Stop the shock.  You can’t control everything for everybody but you can impact the workplace climate.  Make agreements about what is acceptable workplace behavior. Set limits on bad behavior and enforce those limits with meaningful consequences. If that doesn’t work, call in a professional to help you assess the situation and create solutions that do work. The further a situation deteriorates, the longer it takes to correct and the more costly it becomes for individuals and their institutions.

* Psychologists and neurologists distinguish between defensive behavior and predatory attack. This post deals with only with the former – that type of behavior that can fuel workplace conflict but does not pose an imminent threat.

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