There has always been workplace conflict - well before the recent economic crises, the intensity of information technology, and the coarsening of society had a chance to influence our work environments.
Depictions of workplace tensions are common in literature - for example, in Shakespeare's Richard III, Dickens's A Christmas Carol, and Melville's Moby-Dick. Could it be then, that a deeper human dimension is at play?
As social psychology teaches us, conflict situations can be understood only when viewed through the filter of a vast array of personal variables, including family values, gender, culture, past crises, and daily experiences.
Responses to conditions in the workplace are determined by ideas and feelings that include both present experiences and experiences from our histories. The origin of much conflict is thus not just in the annoyance of the workplace in this moment but also from the hidden, underlying, behaviors from "Christmas past", as Dickens would attest.
All of us, on a daily basis, transfer our old, outdated behavior roles from our original organization, the family, into our present organization at work where they no longer serve us well. Because all family systems assign invisible roles to their members and because so few of us deal openly with these roles and the psychic wounds that accompany them, it's easy to see how conflict at work becomes routine. In fact, it would be surprising if it weren't routine.
Leadership development programs rarely touch this dimension of work strife. It stays hidden from view and tumbles through a company unseen until a momentary upset becomes a bloody battle, one that is systemic and bandages only cover the surface of the deeper issues.
Jan is a perfect example. A "model employee" she would show up on time, no, actually she was always early. She was one to bring in the treats for coffee break, often muffins she had baked herself at three in the morning because she was "solving work problems and couldn't sleep."
Jan was a control freak and had to be the conduit for every office decision. She made it a practice to give the cold shoulder to anyone who did not include her in discussions even when they did not apply to her part of the organization. She would constantly go to the boss with stories about what went on and would end the conversations with "Remember, I have your back".
Jan was especially upset when Mary began to gain a strong hold with the boss. She would tell the boss to be wary, that Mary was "not loyal, was a control freak and was only out for her selfish personal interests, not the best interests of the company". Jan made sure to tell the boss that she "knew instantly" that Mary was trouble and would be glad when the boss finally "saw the light and Mary would be fired."
Isn't it strange that we decide so quickly, so instinctively, about our feelings for other people when we first meet them? After all, we don't even know them. It's all so irrational, as if some weird system of judgment were grinding away in our heads without our consent.
It turns out that is exactly what is happening. Because of our family experiences and the roles we are used to playing and seeing our relatives play, we come into new situations at work with unconscious expectations of how the person we are meeting is supposed to look, sound, and act. When our colleagues and bosses don't match our expectations, we realize this in a matter of seconds, and just like that the seeds of conflict are sown.
Jan could not tolerate Mary; the competition for being the boss' favorite took on a life of its own. It exploded when Mary was given a promotion to and would have to work even more closely with the boss.
Jan began her campaign to turn the rest of the staff against this competent and collaborative colleague. It worked with some and others just ignored the splitting. Until one day when Mary asked Jan to check messages, she was expecting an important call and had a meeting with the boss that took priority.
Jan smiled sweetly and said she would be pleased to "cover" for Mary. When Mary walked away Jan, not realizing two others were watching, put her hand in the air and "gave Mary the finger" with an intensity that was unsettling.
The destruction to production at work can cost a company both revenue and morale. If this toxic hidden source of co-worker relating is left untended it could bleed the company into bankruptcy.
What was at the heart of the issue is all too common in work settings. People who suffered through combative relationships with their siblings while growing up tend to come to work looking for this behavior in their peers; these are the ones who express resentment that such-and-such is getting more money, more vacation time, a lightened load, preferential treatment from the boss.
Fortunately for this company the boil was lanced. Sadly for Jan she was unable to dig into the roots of her unconscious behavior and when she could not destroy Mary she decided to quit, claiming a hostile workplace with unfair work expectations.
When last heard, she had just left another job after a year claiming the same type of situation. Jan had found another Mary.