Navigating the Impossible 5 Percent at Work

About 5% of conflicts become seemingly impossible to solve.

Posted Sep 29, 2011

Navigating the Impossible 5% at Work
By Peter T. Coleman,
Author of The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts

Conflicts take their toll on organizational life. They can waste time and lessen productivity, impair teamwork and morale, increase counter-productive behaviors like stealing and sabotage, and poison both the physical and mental health of employees, including increasing employee's chances of heart failure, lowering job and team satisfaction, and increasing rigidity of thought, psychosomatic complaints, and feelings of burnout. In fact, some scholars suggest that conflict brings little else than pain to organizations.

But these consequences pale in comparison to those wrought by the five percent. These are those relatively rare work conflicts that drag on and on; sucking people in interminably and refusing to go away. These problems resist discussion, mediation, even threats by authorities, and have the power to transform the structure and culture of organizations into quagmires of conflict.

I recently consulted with an organization that was trapped and transformed by such a conflict. It had started as a problem between two co-workers, spread and created factions within and beyond their department, culminated in accusations of harassment and racial discrimination, and resulted in disciplinary actions and the termination of one of the employees, which triggered a lawsuit by the employee against the organization that lasted for years. These events drove the company to expand their in-house office for legal counsel exponentially, and transformed the culture of the company from a relatively open and collegial atmosphere to a much more cautious, paranoid, litigious one.

These conflicts are also expensive. For example, to prepare for a court discrimination case, companies report spending between $10,000 and $50,0001. The average jury verdict in wrongful termination cases is more than $640,000 and companies lose 64% of the cases2. Turnover costs for an employee today run between 75% and 150% of his or her annual salary3. These add up, and don't even begin to account for losses in productivity and company loyalty.

Scholars estimate that about five percent of the more difficult conflicts we face become intractable: highly destructive, enduring and resistant to multiple good-faith attempts at resolution. These conflicts seem to develop a power of their own that is inexplicable and total, driving people and groups to act in ways that go against their best interests and sow the seeds of their own ruin. They often tap into past resentments and trigger new ones, which combine to create complicated problems that seem impossible to resolve.

Like epidemics, the five percent seem to operate by a different set of rules, and are therefore unresponsive to typical approaches to conflict resolution and so require a radically different approach. Fortunately, recent breakthroughs in the study of such conflicts -- much of it from the international domain -- have shed light on new strategies for addressing such problems effectively.

Here are a few guidelines:

Seek instability. When conflicts drag-on for months or years, they often establish a status-quo of contentiousness; negative expectations, hostile automatic reactions, and self-fulfilling prophesies that help perpetuate the tensions. However, studies have shown that these conflicts often become more amenable to resolution after some type of major shock has destabilized the system. These jolts can come from different sources, such as economic or health crises, scandals, criminal investigations, natural disasters and other such unsettling events. Leaders should learn to watch for periods of instability - ruptures in the day-to-day dynamics of the conflict-fixated organization, which present unique opportunities for change. However, it is important to realize that instability, although helpful, is often only a necessary but insufficient condition for resolution of the five percent.

Cause and...effect? Research on enduring conflicts also tells us that the effects of destabilizing shocks to systems are often delayed. In some protracted international conflicts, changes have taken as long as ten years to emerge after a major political shock occurred (for example, the Arab Spring erupted ten years after 9/11 and the US occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq). Therefore, five percent conflicts require us to suspend our tendencies to think in terms of immediate cause-and-effect, and to understand that radical changes in complex systems can operate within radically different time frames.

See the larger network in which the problem is embedded. Five percent problems may start small, but over time they can gather new problems and grievances and disputants which can combine in convoluted ways and increase their intractability. If this is the case, it can be immensely useful to map-out the different events, issues and disputants involved in the conflict - as they happened in time - in order to get a better view of what is driving and constraining the conflict. This is particularly important when the polarizing pull of Us vs. Them becomes potent and leads to the oversimplification of the sources of the conflict (Them!).

Sidestep the conflict. Direct intervention in these conflicts, such as attempts at face-to-face negotiations or mediation, is typically ineffective, often fails repeatedly, and can make matters worse. With five percent conflicts, it can be best to avoid directly tackling the conflict for a time and instead work to increase the probability of positive interactions and decrease negativity between the disputants through means that are completely unrelated to the conflict. Backing away from the problem in this manner may allow unexpected solutions to emerge on their own, particularly as the climate shifts between the disputants.

Know the power of the meek. Studies of intractable conflicts in the geopolitical domain that were eventually resolved have taught us that forceful interventions by powerful authorities or third-parties rarely help for very long. Ironically, they find that it is often weaker third-parties who employ softer forms of power (are trust-worthy, unthreatening, reliable, and without their own agenda) who often are the most effective catalysts for peaceful change.

Bolster islands of agreement. Research has also found that in many protracted conflicts, such as those in Kashmir and Israel, the disputing factions maintain benevolent islands in their relationships where they can communicate and cooperate, despite the escalation of their conflict. In international affairs this can occur through trade, civilian visits or exchanges of medical care. In the workplace, these islands may exist around personal or professional crises (e.g., a sick child), outside interests (mutual hobbies or causes), or by way of chains of communications through trusted third-parties. Supporting or encouraging these islands can mitigate tensions and help to contain the spread of conflict.

See the invisible 5%. In tense conflicts, we tend to process negative information about the other side and ignore or deny positive information completely. Thus, simply identifying the 5% of actions by the other side that are benign or benevolent in intention can help to constrain the spread of negativity in conflict. This information begins to fracture the certainty of us vs. them.

Five percent work conflicts are extremely costly and demanding but they are not impossible to solve. Understanding the hidden dynamics at play with these problems and the various strategies available to tip them in constructive directions is the first step to their effective resolution.

1. Denny, J. (1999). The Cost of Conflict. National Institute for Advanced Conflict Resolution
2. Idem
3. Idem

© 2011 Peter T. Coleman, author of The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts

Author Bio
Peter T. Coleman, author of The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts, is associate professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, and on the faculty of Teachers College and The Earth Institute at Columbia. In 2003, he received the Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association, Division 48: Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence. He lives in New York.

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