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Aug 25, 2006

The anatomy of human conflict

Anything could trigger a conflict; I am not convinced there needs to be a trigger at all. Yet what happens next is fairly universal. “A” does something, and “B” interprets is as a hostile action. It never ceases to amaze me how poor are our interpretations of others' intent. I would call this phenomenon “the hostility bias.” It may have very simple evolutionary reasons: it would benefit an animal to perceive any strange, unexplained actions by another animal as hostile. We can’t really help it; lack of information for interpretation leads us to interpret other’s behavior as hostile. The way we assign meaning to things is by comparing them to our past experiences, but our past experiences are remembered already interpreted. In other words, if you think someone was mean to you in the past (which may or may not be true), any next action of the same person is likely to be interpreted as hostile. That is how we make enemies. An enemy is a very simple category, because it takes all the guesswork and uncertainty out of figuring out the intent. An enemy will always be expected to undermine you, so any of his or her actions should be opposed based on this assumption. Of course, having enemies makes working together very unproductive, because the substance of discussion is overshadowed by the hidden implied meanings of the discussion.

In most social systems, there are elaborated rituals of reconciliation to overcome the natural tendency to suspect evil intentions. People expel bad spirits, they punish each other, forgive, make peace, sign treaties, marry their children, etc., etc. In the academia, such powerful forces of cohesion do not exist or are weak, so conflicts arise easily and rarely extinguish themselves. The only natural defense against the splintering centrifugal forces of conflict is finding a common external enemy. For that, people need to feel threatened in a very profound way. So, paradoxically, if an academic unit is in a decent shape, and is successful, the forces of social cohesion tend to be weak, because there is no plausible enemy without.

Of course, conflicts are terribly distracting. The energy expended on scheming, strategizing, resisting, sabotaging, and mending fences is enormous. How do we establish a culture that is if not immune to conflicts, at least not a Petri dish for them? One rule maybe one that I always try to impose on my students: always assume that your opponent is not evil or stupid. In either case, dialogue and cooperation are impossible. If we do not allow for a possibility that honest, decent people may disagree with us, and neither of us is wrong, then, well, we may as well close down the shop. The room, the assumption of honest disagreement is absolutely essential. Bill Clinton has articulated this idea many times in his speeches, to no avail, apparently, for political debate in this country remains dialogue-free. Another rule: accept uncertainty, do not over-interpret people’s actions. In very simple cases, we can read the general intention of another person from non-verbal cues: is she smiling, is his tone of voice friendly? Now, when we communicate over e-mail, OR when we communicate with complex actions rather than words, these back-up channels of communication fail. We simply do not know other people’s intentions. We like to guess and pretend we understand, but in fact, we often do not have a clue. This is when the hostility bias kicks in. We are animals in search of narrative; we NEED a story to explain the world, including the behavior of others. It takes a conscious effort to tell yourself: “I simply don’t know what they mean.”

OK, to review, two rules of conflict-free work place:
  1. No one is evil or stupid (stupid includes incompetent)
  2. You can't read other people's minds

Of course, there are things I should do as the Director to help this process. One is to allow for greater information flow and transparency for all decisions. Remember, it is lack of information that invites the hostility bias. And two, I should never fully trust any story any of you is telling me about someone else in a context of conflict. So, if you tell me someone was evil or incompetent, I might nod, but just know, I am not really buying it; there probably was a simpler explanation of that person’s actions. My job is not to find out who was right and who was wrong about this or that, much less to take sides; it is to make sure we can work together despite our personal likes or dislikes, or past conflicts or disagreements.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9:14 AM

    The "Anatomy of Human Conflict" is well stated. I agree that the lack of information and patterns of interpretations create or dismiss conflict. Another piece is the prevailing culture. If the culture supports habitual patterns then they really become entrenched. But if a disequalizing energy interrupts the patterns then they don't become entrenched. Scepticism of the common practices is enough to provide the disequilibrium. Then the atmosphere changes, providing the fresh air of renewal.