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Shut Down Conflict Games and Tactics with Boundaries

Conflict is a fact of life; it is inevitable. No matter who you are, or what you do, we all encounter conflict situations. Inside or outside the workplace, there is no running or hiding from this fact. But before we start panicking about being in a conflict situation which will eventually happen sooner or later, there are a few aspects of conflict that will benefit us if we understand them.

For example, conflict is not always a bad thing. Just think about how many times you’ve been in conflict throughout your life. You may have had a conflict with someone or started off on the wrong foot, and then you ended up being best friends. How many times have you had an argument or a conflict with someone, only to find a stronger relationship once it was resolved? Conflict can actually be an opportunity if we use it to build stronger relationships with others in or outside of work.

For example, conflict can be constructive if:

The relationship gets stronger. You understand each other better.There is greater willingness to meet each other’s needs.There is greater trust. You have resolved the source of future conflicts.There are richer perspectives.

However, if the conflict results in deeper frustration, negative feelings and a growing hostility, it is destructive to the relationship and organization. Unresolved conflict can cost the organization productivity and financial results due to:

Higher stress among employees and customers. People are likely aware of an ongoing conflict and this awareness can affect morale on all levels. Over time, when employees are unhappy, they share their disgruntled attitude with others. The situation wears on those who are forced to listen to them and shades their view of the company.

Lower productivity as effort and resources are redirected into the conflict and away from the work at hand. Even staff who aren’t directly involved in the conflict may start to believe that the company doesn’t care, so why should they give it their all?

Lower interpersonal and team cohesion as individuals and their supporters, take sides and begin to stereotype each other.

Time spent in working around or avoiding conflict is taken away from other, more important matters. Inappropriate decisions are made to support the various causes and positions of the parties. Status and ego become more important than the best interests of the customer and organization.

Decreased customer service. Engaged customers are a direct result of engaged employees. If someone who deals with clients is unhappy, you run the risk of him/her taking it out, knowingly or not, on customers. The cost to the bottom line could be devastating.

Lowered Reputation. Word gets around fast when people find a great enterprise that really values its employees. When conflict goes unresolved, it also affects a company’s reputation. When employees and customers begin speaking negatively about their experiences, reputations erode. Disgruntled employees’ comments can scare off a future valued employee as well as potential customers.

Loss of Skilled Employees. In addition to the hard cost associated with employee turnover, consider the soft cost when a skilled employee leaves out of frustration. You must train new employees, but when a highly skilled employee leaves, she takes with her everything you taught her, and gives this expertise to your competitors. Retaining skilled employees keeps production high and training time to a minimum.

Games and Tactics People Play

During my career leading human resources functions and consulting with numerous organizations, I often find employees or management playing games or tactics as a means of exerting pressure on the other stakeholders to persuade them to give way or make concessions. These conflict resolution games/tactics tend to fall within four basic categories.

1. Opening Games - to establish dominance or procedures in their favor. Opening games usually start with one of the parties involved making statements such as:

“I only deal with decision-makers.” Purpose: to intimidate or to ensure they are working with the right person.

“That is not negotiable or is off limits.” Purpose: to attempt to take something off the agenda that they do not want. In fact, everything is always negotiable.

“I have a mandate.” Purpose: to set out their most favored position. For example: “I must approve all new hires or salary increases.”

“This is the agenda.” Purpose: to get the other side to follow your agenda rather than one mutually agreed upon.

2. Advantage Games - to assist and strengthen their position.

“Nothing but the facts.” Purpose: to show that their case has hard evidence to support it and, consequently, it is realistic, reasonable and fair, and should be accepted without question.

“Ask for the moon.” Purpose: to overstate what they want so much that they can trade down considerably without coming to a real settlement position. For example: asking for 15% when they would settle for 5%. When you are pushed back to 10% they can put on an honest face and say, “Look, we have conceded 5% already.”

“The link.” Purpose: once they have identified something you want, they can concede with little cost. Then, they link it with something that they want and treat the two as one item. For example: “We can increase the salary by 2% if you forgo any merit increase and take a reduction in vacation benefits.”

3. Disadvantage Games - to weaken their opponent’s case.

“Testing’” Purpose: to make you doubt your strength. For example: “You know your management could not take a transport strike on a public holiday.” Or, “I’m confident that your members would not strike over this issue.”

“Russian Front.” Purpose: to offer something that you want, together with a totally unacceptable alternative. For example: “Do you want to do this or go to the Russian Front?” Or, “We can offer you 3% this year or nothing this year if you agree to 10% next year.”

“See you in court.” Purpose: to intimidate you. They end the discussion saying, “See you on the picket line.” Or, “See you in court.”

“Abuse.” Purpose: to put you off guard by rudeness, attacking your credibility, competency or status, making you wait, bullying, interrupting, etc.

4. Closing Games - to speed a conclusion in their favor.

“All or nothing.” Purpose: to force a close. For example: “If you do not accept this then we go back to square one and start again.”

“Time limit.” Purpose: to accelerate the conclusion. For example: “This offer ends today.” “Prices go up tomorrow.” Or, “The boss comes back tomorrow, and he would not approve this.”

“Bonus.” Purpose: to encourage settlement through giving something small. For example: “If we settle today then we will…..”

Counter Tactics and Dealing with Games - Setting and Maintaining Boundaries

Counter Tactic 1

The best defense against a game is to point out to the player that you recognize the game for what it is. For example: “Playing the “All or nothing game” is not helping this negotiation.”

Counter Tactic 2

Another approach is to continue to restate your boundaries like a broken record. You ignore the person’s game or gambit and continue asserting your boundary by just repeat yourself over and over again. If you do this often enough game players soon stop playing their games.

It is important not to take offense or to get emotional when others play games. Games are generally not personal; they are just part of an immature method of manipulating and dealing with conflict. Spotting them and their variations can save a great deal of angst for you and may even serve as a positive role model for game players.

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