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© Source: Anke Sommer
Die Graue Eminenz hat bei Konflikten im Team einen entscheidenden Einfluss auf den Verlauf. Sie bestimmt die Intrigenfelder und vergiftet das Team.

How conflict systems give rise to a culture of workplace bullying and scheming

Conflicts create scheming; scheming leads to bullying. Here’s the story: during an intervention in a company, I couldn’t help but notice that its four partners were on the verge of a destructive confrontation. From a consultant’s viewpoint, these partners would have already found themselves in the grip of a deep, destructive conflict, harming both the business and their health, if they hadn’t been willing to get an external view.
My role as a consultant is to provide the partners with a framework for disengaging themselves from conflicts and moving towards synergy, which essentially means adopting a mutually supportive approach. There is no question that reciprocal support has a positive impact on joint business enterprises. Another logical conclusion that ensues from the synergetic collaboration is that the resulting benefits are not only monetary.

What triggers conflicts in teams?

Conflicts break out regularly at work, but why do they turn serious and, on occasions, erase all intelligence whatsoever? Why is it that destruction rather than synergy wins the day? A confrontation is an interaction of many forces, creating a field of conflict in which the entire dispute plays out.
In the abovementioned example, the individual participants involved in the controversy are partners in a joint business enterprise. But these businessmen are also human beings and private individuals, each of whose experience with disputes is entirely specific to them. In addition to the behavioural patterns that have been learned and acquired, childhood experiences also have an impact on the field of conflict, as these created attitudes towards certain behaviours. It is at this point that a conflict starts getting emotional, without the facts of the situation being taken into account.

In these circumstances, individual words, body postures and gestures alone are enough to lose sight of the facts and trigger forceful emotions intended to ‘floor’ the person opposite – without taking potential losses into account– or push someone into a power struggle. This is when a conflict becomes dangerous, as people are now acting blindly, and the objective commercial situation disappears from the radar. It is now no longer about the substantive matter itself, only about emotion.
This can only cause the company one thing: damage. Without conflict management, a crisis can become even more complex.

Which forces are involved in a conflict?

I have already mentioned a few of them. Here they are once again:

  • The entrepreneurs make up a share of the forces
  • So the company is also part of the conflict system; it is an additional force at play at the systemic level
  • The employees, seen as individuals, are an additional force in the conflict system; it makes no difference whether an employee is involved or not
  • There are also people, private individuals, who constitute a contributory force, as their lifelong experience and development can trigger irrational behaviour at any time
  • Then there are the third parties, people who are not directly involved in the events taking place but are nonetheless contributing to them; they have considerable power in the field of conflict if they remain unrecognised, as they are helping to create and encourage destructive attitudes among individual people affected by the conflict
  • These third parties don’t necessarily need to be employed in the relevant company; they may also come from previous employment relationships, from circles of friends, etc. but they are linked to the person being discredited; in conflict fields, these active third parties are known as the agents of ‘toxic messages

‘Toxicity’ in the field of conflict keeps the dispute alive – but what’s the source?

These agents may fuel conflicts from behind the scenes, but they are not the source of the ‘contamination’ that has occurred, they merely keep the ‘poison’ flowing. In this case, we talk about a bullying or scheming culture that is usually supported unconsciously. Many agents have no idea of what they’re actually doing and conveying. They don’t realise that they have become part of a conspiratorial system.
But we still haven’t mentioned the grey eminence in the background – the person in the field of conflict who is a highly influential variable, as he or she is the source of the negative messages. Grey eminences are people who at one point had contact with the person currently being discredited and – for whatever reason – are now sending toxic messages to the bullying target. Never directly! The ‘contamination’ takes place via agents who are in contact with both the grey eminence and the entrepreneur now being seen in a negative light.

Grey eminences and their messages

Grey eminence is therefore the name used for people who are responsible for negative messages but remain undetected. Often, they aren’t even actively involved in the conflict any longer, but they were the people who were initially heavily involved in painting the target person in an extremely negative light and distorting other people’s view of him/her. And it is genuinely not easy to identify grey eminences, since they act – or in the past have acted – incognito, from a position in the background. In public, they are usually extremely pleasant to the people they’re very negative about behind their backs. The grey eminence benefited during the active phase of the bullying, e.g. due to vengeful thoughts or an interest in a position currently held by the target person. It is possibly also a problem that is personal to the grey eminence and is expressing itself through scheming.

I deal extensively with ‘grey eminences in scheming situations’ in my daily work and have always found a process for these characters that explains – but in no way excuses – their behaviour. When does it change from a conflict to a system including bullying and scheming structures? Once there is ‘poison’ in the system, does it stay there until someone (often an external consultant) discovers it and provides the antidote through increased awareness?

Breaking up bullying structures

At the moment of third-party participation upheld by a grey eminence, from a systemic viewpoint this then results in the transition to a system shaped by scheming and mobbing structures. At least one person will be seen in a distorted light in this system. This distortion has to go if entrepreneurs want to work in an environment with healthy synergy. Asking the consultant to keep the victim in check also doesn’t help. This request is often justified on the grounds that without the consultant the grey eminence would jeopardise the entire company.
Beware! These kinds of messages often conceal distorting statements that were planted in the active phase of bullying. Consultants can make synergy possible by disabling existing disruptions – but they must not become part of the field of conflict themselves!

However, this is precisely what would happen the moment a consultant honoured such a request to keep the targeted person in check. In doing so, their professional advice would then be intended to influence the targeted person ‘in the right direction’. This thought alone reveals that we are now talking about a scheming system. This type of system is incompatible with every form of positive synergy or beneficial co-operation.

Recognise distortions

Of course, it can also be the case that the person targeted with distortion is in fact someone with difficult behavioural patterns. A distortion and its related disruption – which needs to be taken seriously – can be recognised in the fact that the ‘difficult person’ isn’t given the chance to correct this image. The negative side of things is expressed, and not just to one set of listeners, but the message isn’t conveyed to the target person directly. This alone has a negative impact on the company, as everyone in it will be indirectly harmed in the process.
Given that it is very difficult for victims to discover who the grey eminence is, it is important not to unwittingly become an agent of this kind of distorted message yourself. Putting an end to this unconscious agency factor alone means that, from a systemic viewpoint, you have isolated the grey eminence. He or she then plays an ever-diminishing role. Stopping one’s own agency activities is therefore far more important than the necessity of discovering the grey eminence’s identity.

A distortion victim needs to distance him/herself from the role assigned to them by first of all identifying what has been assigned. This is not at all easy without an external consultant, since the target person often only notices the distortion at an emotional level; they are unable to attribute their feelings to the underlying contamination with the result that they start looking for the error in themselves.

Clear up fields of conflict!

Why should an affected company free itself of these structures? These bullying structures make it impossible to be together in a positive way. They virtually exclude synergy. They inhibit a company’s healthy growth process. This alone explains why clearance is so important. The word ‘clearance’ speaks for itself. The consequences of a conflict can remain as faults even after a dispute has been resolved. These faults are rectified in the work with INSTITUT SOMMERINSTITUT SOMMER is not only the name of our company, but also the expression of the approach we take towards the requests we receive. Read more here.... Read more. In doing so, the institute tracks the process in the company or in relationships of any kind. The process quickly reveals the entrepreneurial and interpersonal procedures that are impaired. These faults show… More about conflicts in companies. After all, even old conflicts can become disruptive factors, even if they didn’t take place in the current company.
As you, the reader, have now recognised: previous bullying can penetrate a different current system if you fail to identify that distortion is taking place and that you, as an agent, are maintaining this distortion, or that you are or have been the one targeted by systemic contamination. So be attentive.

Lead the way!

Don’t allow yourself to become an agent of distortion in any form. Stop discussions of other people that are taking place inside or outside the company if the other people aren’t directly informed. Distance yourself from all distortion in your environment. If you’re having problems with a particular person then you’re free to break off contact or at least dramatically reduce it, if distancing yourself for good would not be commercially possible, or it would make no sense to do so. No verbal distortion is required, as in the long term this would ‘poison’ every company and prevent positive co-operation.

Be observant!

If you are or have been the target of systemic ‘poisoning’, you will become more observant of the things that you’re prepared to accept going forward. Don’t primarily look for the problem in yourself but instead start taking account of the fact that, irrespective of your personality, things about you were or are circulating in a bid to harm you. Reject all attributions in the future and listen to your gut feeling. This is the best way to uncover bullying and scheming structures and to implement conflict management. Your gut feeling will certainly have something to say if you land in ‘toxic’ atmospheres. Distance yourself from people who trigger messages in your gut instinct that something isn’t right. Trust yourself.

I wish you positive co-operation and am happy to be there for you as a conflict management consultant should you wish to put an end to damaging problems.

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