When Crisis Management Becomes Conflict Management

The psychological toll of the pandemic has challenged workers and managers in a variety of ways. As we head into the third year of Covid, a new issue has sprung up: “splitting,” a mental defense mechanism which allows us to tolerate difficult and even unbearable emotions by seeing someone or something as either heroes or villains, good or bad, “with us” or “against us.” This can result in tension and conflict. To manage it, leaders need to focus on three areas: identifying splitting triggers in themselves, spotting splitting behavior on their teams, and focusing on reuniting and reintegrating relationships.

“I don’t get it,” said a senior executive. “Things are looking brighter and our business is rocketing back. We should be fired up that our normal lives are just around the corner. But in many places, I look, I see people acting in erratic and unpredictable ways, almost like an office version of road rage.”

After two years of the pandemic — where we went from hyper-alert mode towards exhaustion, regression, lulls, and ultimately some form of recovery — we are now entering a new psychological phase. I label this phase “the Big Split” because of the dominance of the psychological reaction called splitting.

Splitting is a mental defense mechanism which allows us to tolerate difficult and even unbearable emotions by resorting to black-or-white thinking. We identify others as either heroes or villains, good or bad, “with us” or “against us.” This frees us from the burden of having to face our own shortcomings and missteps, while allowing us to cast our opponents as purely and fully bad, instead of looking for nuance and common ground. You could say it’s a way of staying intact by simplifying and being categorical instead of taking everything in and risking overload or burnout.

As a result, this phase is tense and conflict-ridden. In essence, people feel caught in a toxic stream of mental and behavioral conflict, of deadlock and disruption, and are acting out. Everyday confrontations are compounded by primitive emotions like stereotyping, bias, and self-righteousness. The overarching sentiment is no longer “We’re in this together” but rather “We’re back on our own.”

Once you start looking, signs of the Big Split are everywhere. Teams are fracturing as the “common enemy” of the pandemic (hopefully) subsides; in its place, employees are jockeying for position, engaged in power struggles, and experiencing relationship tensions. Record numbers of people are resigning from good jobs for no obvious reason other than “to make a change” and “start a new chapter.” Many people want to get back in the driver’s seat and put their own needs first — at least for a while. “I have put myself last and sacrificed a lot to keep the company I work for running,” said one leader at a management offsite. “Frankly, I expect something in return now.”

Leaders who take on the Big Split can gain a head start and fuel progress and recovery, whereas leaders who neglect and disregard the devastating potential of the Big Split stand to lose and risk stagnation.

Understanding the Big Split
First, leaders must understand the Big Split as a multi-layered mental conflict. It’s as if the lid came off a series of life’s pressure cookers all at the same time. Behind it lies a complex psychological cocktail: delayed gratification, feelings of injustice, and a race to fill the emotional vacuum created by years of living with restrictions.

In March 2020, when the pandemic emergency became clear, many of us felt an energy rush. Leaders became the best version of themselves in this phase. Teams instinctively pulled together and became highly productive.

Then the second phase hit: a regression phase, where people got tired, lost their sense of purpose, started fighting about the small stuff, and started to neglect their relationships. Or they denied themselves basic things, like maintaining healthy habits, exercising, and sleeping right.

Next came the recovery phase, where we started to move out of the lull. We changed the question from, “How can we handle the crisis?” to “How can we move out of the crisis?” This phase was filled with lots of new ideas, and we saw friends, family and colleagues embracing the new future.

However, the slow recovery tested our resilience. The crisis took much longer than many people expected — one year became two. This meant that, for many of us, the phases started to repeat. New year’s resolutions were abandoned, and popular memes depicted how difficult it was to see the difference between 2020, 2021, and 2022. For many leaders and their teams, a new kind of inertia began — a lull where leaders struggled to find energy and performance again. People stopped believing that this would ever really change. In many teams, I heard a version of the sentence: “Why bother? It won’t matter if we do this anyway.”

As we move into a new stage of the pandemic, many of the dark emotions linger on. Many observers have taken note of the corrosive effect of isolation, the strain on relationships, and a new social awkwardness.

So, instead of a peaceful resolution or catharsis, we’re splitting instead. The aftermath seems to have become fertile ground for bad agency: People, companies, parties, and even nations acting for gain or glory. The pandemic, of course, has no mastermind or bad agent. It’s a catastrophic event that affects all of us. But after more than two years of feeling like we have no control, it’s much easier for our brains to simplify everything into “good” and “bad” than to keep feeling massive levels of uncertainty. As a result, we’ve reached the point where the adversaries are in human, not virus, form and now conflicts feel personal and insidious.

Leading Through the Big Split
For leaders, the point is to recognize that this phase is not a collective sigh of relief and a joyous reunion, but rather one filled with conflict and confrontation.

This phase is as much about conflict management as it is about the psychological crisis management many leaders have used over the past few years. This applies to your own behavior, to the dynamic of your team, and to relationships with your stakeholders at large.

First, understand and monitor your own triggers.
One of the most important steps to dismantling splitting is self-awareness and self-regulation. Realizing when you are falling prey to splitting, whether a little or a lot, and taking note of what triggers you to react in out-of-character ways is a good first step.

What are the clues to look for? Stop and think if you tend see other people as either good or bad, a project as a wild success or a total failure, or if you are convinced that you are right and everyone else around you are wrong. As a test, ask yourself these simple questions:

Do you feel like people are either with you or against you, rather than considering the merits of their arguments?
Do you devalue and label other people more readily?
Do you feel like people around you are either completely incompetent or unsung heroes?
If you catch yourself viewing the world and the workplace in a good-bad binary, remember that a few instances of “bad behavior” is not the same as deeming someone a “bad agent.” The key is to reject absolutes and categorical thinking. When you resist splitting, you hold on to the nuances that can help shape strategy, processes, and team culture for the better. As a leader, that means listening to intricacies in the communication around you, and paying attention to the things that remain unsaid and undone.

You should also be on guard for how you react when you are exposed to splitting behavior directed at you. Remember that when people attack you, often they are attacking your role, not you as a person. Understanding the criticism will prevent it from undermining your stability and sense of self-worth. And that’s important because when you feel the sting of an attack, you are likely to become defensive and lash out at your critics, which will perpetuate and amplify the downward splitting spiral.

Second, spot splitting behavior in your teams and intervene.
We’re all a bit out of practice when it comes to social interaction, so the rules of engagement may need to be restated and reset.

Look out for undue labeling of others (“they are so slow”), professional disagreement turning into personal animosity (“I don’t trust her”), or people “going rogue” (“you do your thing, I’ll do mine”). These are all immature splitting mechanisms that we tend to overuse when we are overworked, tired, and exhausted. An effective way of intervening is to call out splitting behavior as soon as you notice it playing out.

For example, one banking executive took note of his team’s constant complains over how other teams were “slowing them down” because of their focus on risk, compliance, and ethical concerns: “If it weren’t for ‘them,’ we would be able to move much faster.” After listening to the complaints, the leader called a time-out. “We sound like immature teenagers. Let’s bring our colleagues from compliance into the room and not leave before we have reset our rules of engagement and our collaboration style.” This simple move defused what could have been a lasting split and a festering wound.

Other conflicts, however, are necessary for negotiating the new balances of our work lives. These are “mature” splits — rightful differences of opinion and interest that shouldn’t be suppressed. Because let’s face it: Everyday leadership is full of clashing viewpoints, like, “I have to say that I really don’t agree,” or “If we don’t do this real change will never happen.” Those crucial and confrontational splits can energize and lift a meeting or spark a new discussion.

In order to resolve differences of opinion, instead of letting them fester, I have seen leaders scale up the frequency of team meetings but shorten their duration drastically. This runs counter to what we are often advised to do when people are tired and drained: Scale down the number of meetings and give people more quiet time. One leader who uses this method explained why: “We drifted too much apart during the pandemic. … We needed the rhythm of a daily check-in to bond and stay current.” These short and intense interactions gave the team a synchronized, daily energy burst without being too time-consuming.

Third, aim to reunite and reintegrate your relationships.
The knee-jerk reaction to conflict and uncertainty is to protect your own interests and pursue your own goals. But this also deepens the Big Split. Instead, leaders need to act with an overall purpose of reuniting and reintegrating.

To do this, leaders must first emphasize that it isn’t shameful to experience splitting, and that it’s okay to direct time and resources to resolve the fundamental conflicts. Indeed, managing those conflicts and finding the path to reunion and reintegration is the essence of leadership right now. As a leader told me: “I have never used my negotiation skills as much as right now. People constantly come to me to negotiate something new — it’s like the pandemic has disturbed our ability to say: Enough is enough.”

Second, leaders must offer two things in order to be able to reunite and reintegrate: Shared perspective and mutual support.

To offer perspective, leaders should fully understand colleagues, employees, and peers by letting them talk about the turmoil that they’re going through, and then search for long-term and constructive ways to move forward. Some leaders do this by bringing in experts to share “the big picture” on current geopolitical events so that employees can discuss and inspire each other. Others make sure to always link business decisions and leadership actions to the broader purpose of the company or the wider social and economic context. Starting with a shared perspective mitigates both misunderstandings and undue questioning of motives.

As for building mutual support, remember that a strong emotional connection between colleagues, teams, and stakeholders outlasts most other kinds of motivation. This means setting aside time to discuss and share concerns, frustrations, and hopes on issues that are not directly linked to everyday tasks or even work.

At one pharmaceutical company, for instance, a leader starts every meeting by asking her team how they’re really feeling. One day, the entire team was feeling low, tired and drained, and a few team members were concerned over private matters with sickness and trauma. Instead of plowing forward with the agenda, potentially resulting in resentment or increased fatigue, the leader decided to reschedule the meeting. In its place, she asked employees to do something that brought them joy — enjoy a cup of tea, take a walk, call a friend, or read.

Aiming to reunite and reintegrate doesn’t mean shying away from confrontation, giving in, or being lenient. But it may mean not fighting tooth and claw to claim the very last dime and to get the last word. Instead, consider the more intangible value of strong long-term relationships. The key is to show your team that even when people are pulling in different directions, your charge is to find common ground amidst harsh realities.

Moving on From the Big Split
The Big Split may in some cases just be a passing phase — a spike of frustration and readjustment as we reengage with “normal” life, like getting used to being back in rush hour traffic after years of zipping through wide and open lanes.

But the Big Split may also be a more persistent condition that will once again test the patience and resilience of leaders themselves, as well as their teams and stakeholders.

Leaders have collectively rehearsed, practiced, and refined their crisis management skills for a couple of years. Just when we thought we could put those skills to rest and concentrate on normality, we find that we need them more than ever and that we also need to add another skill — conflict management — to our leadership agenda.

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