When you hear the term “mean spirited”, what kind of person comes to mind? It’s a term that often comes up in many of our workplaces, and produces images of personal attacks and dysfunctional games that manifest in so many ways; holding back information, sabotage, blame, attacking, gossip, stonewalling and the like.

I see a “mean spirited” person as someone who causes others mental, emotional or physical harm purely for their own pleasure. It may be about personal gain, lift their own self-esteem, or create a sense of satisfaction in putting others down. It’s a few steps up the continuum from inconsiderate conflict, which is more about blind behaviour, bad manners, and is not necessarily intentional. Both forms of conflict are destructive within a team.

Different types of conflict can yield different results. We know that healthy conflict fosters growth, creativity and the generation of new ideas (read our article on “Why conflict is Essential to Forward Motion”). But if individuals move away from candid conversations regarding ideas and concepts, and towards interpersonal, mean spirited conflict, the consequences will usually be dysfunctional teams, high turnover and poor results.

We all have ways to deal with difference within the workplace. Some of us use productive behaviours when we feel resistance, encounter opposition or perceive that someone is frustrating our efforts. We can view difference functionally and take steps to address it through alternative productive behaviours such as:

  • Determining the root of the problem
  • Communicating respectfully
  • Introspecting and being aware of our own feelings
  • Stepping back and reflecting to ensure we have perspective on the issue
  • Seeking active resolution despite the poor behaviours of others
  • Giving people space and time if needed without pushing too hard for your own needs to be met
  • Avoiding the placement of blame

All of these behaviours require high levels of emotional intelligence, an appreciation of behavioural style, self-awareness and sound communication strategies.

However sometimes our responses can be more harmful than good. For many of us, conflict situations are threatening, which may lead to responses that are instinctual and defensive and we may use childhood strategies to get our own way. It’s our instinct to protect ourselves, leading to knee-jerk responses that we many not even think about, and that we may later regret. Some of these behaviours can be subtle, others can be very forceful in nature. Examples include:

  • Arguing
  • Belittling
  • Becoming overly dramatic
  • Becoming hypercritical
  • Revenge and looking to even the score
  • Sarcasm
  • Stonewalling and becoming non-receptive
  • Withdrawing and clamming up
  • Defensiveness
  • Dismissing opinions
  • Drama
  • Overpowering
  • Exaggerating the problem

There are many reasons for mean spirited behaviour – take a simple one like exaggeration. Exaggeration is a way of making something sound as bad as it feels to us personally, it attracts attention to our perception of an injustice that is very important to us, it legitimises our intense reaction and it’s also empowering. For example, which of these sounds more powerful? “You’re always late!” or “You’re sometimes late!” We find ways to make our case seem much more powerful and defensible. Who wants to choose a weaker argument when a much more powerful argument is right there for the taking?  However the unfortunate consequence is that this sends a clear signal to the other person that we’re not ready to be reasonable, that we’re in combat mode and that we’re more interested in winning than reaching a fair resolution.

Behaviour can also be narcissistic (read our article “Monsters in the Workplace – Narcissistic Leaders”), manipulative, and involve greater use of mean spirited behaviour such as total exclusion. Exclusion can feel like a perfect tool to get back at someone or to hurt them – the allure comes from flexing our social muscle to ensure that the other person feels the pain of isolation, that they feel sorry for crossing us, and it sends the message that “I have the ability to take away your relationships”. By disrupting their standing in the group, we gain support for our side of the story. We can shape how people perceive the conflict. The other person now knows that they have to manage their relationship with us because they know we’re willing to engage in power plays or burn them if things don’t go our way.

With such deeply rooted and often unconscious strategies at play, how do we move from mean spirited conflict to productive conflict? Here are some tips:

  • Continually explore when and why you use any of the destructive forms of conflict – become more self-aware of the strategies you use to get your own way. Are they productive or unproductive long term?
  • Understand your natural behavioural style tendencies. Consider using something like a DiSC profile to identify your style tendencies and the healthy or unhealthy behaviours that align with each style (see below)
  • Explore your own emotional intelligence. Increase your awareness of how you are feeling; understand why you are feeling that way and reflect on how this affects your behaviour, decisions and performance. Learn to read others better (social competence).
  • Grow and develop your communication skill suite by becoming more assertive (versus submissive or aggressive) and working on productive influencing skills.

Other ways we might be able to add value to your workplace when it comes to mean spirited conflict:

Not sure on the best solution for your team? Contact us to discuss options