print a pdf version of this article, click here
DEADLY DYNAMICS: How to Stop the Other Person From Being Unreasonable
Copyright © 2004 Andrea Corney
Common Form of Conflict
In my work I do a
lot of conflict resolution and lately I've been seeing quite a lot
of what I call Deadly Dynamics. If you aren't in the midst of a deadly
dynamic right now, you've certainly experienced it once or twice in your
career and I guarantee it’s going to pop up on your team one day soon.
Learn to recognize now it before it throws a monkey wrench into all your
What are Deadly
What is a Deadly
Dynamic? It is any situation in which two people are unwittingly
driving each other into the very behavior they each hate. When it’s
happening to you, all you can see is that the other person is a pain (or
a Dope, or a Jerk, or a Pick-Your-Favorite-Epithet. You're very aware
of the dysfunctional behavior of the other person, but have a hard time
seeing what you do that keeps the dynamic spinning. In my experience, it
almost always Takes Two to Tango.
The best way to
describe the phenomenon is with a few examples:
Case of the Micro-Managing Boss
Bob has a classic
complaint: “My boss, Jason, is a real micro-manager -- controlling,
insecure, the whole nine yards. He's always peering over my shoulder.
He even spies on me by squeezing my peers and direct reports for dirt!
I usually like to bat around ideas with my boss, but if I ask this guy
for input, I know he'll just take over. The only way to have any
control over my work is to try to stay below the radar. It's a full
time job to keep him from meddling in my work.”
We can all
sympathize with that situation. Micro-managers are a nightmare. The
only choices are to live with it or go look for another job.
But now let’s go
talk with Jason: “Bob is so secretive. He won't keep me informed about
what he's working on and never asks for my input. It's like pulling
teeth to get any information from him. It makes me worry that he is
doing a lousy job or even something unethical -- either way it’s
something that will one day blow up in my face. I've even had to resort
to asking his peers and direct reports what's going on so I don't get
Now the picture
looks a little different. They are caught in a deadly dynamic -- Bob
holds back info. Jason, fearful of what he doesn't know, asks for more
information than he would otherwise. In response, Bob becomes even more
close mouthed. And on and on. All Bob can see is that Jason is
Micro-Managing. All Jason can see is that Bob is Secretive. Neither is
aware of how his own behavior is part of the dynamic.
The Case of the Flighty VP
John is a CEO who
has concerns about a new VP: “I really value Mary's brains and
enthusiasm, but I wish she weren't always in 'sales' mode. She gives me
all the reasons why we should leap into action, but seems more
interested in getting me to say 'yes' than in having a real dialogue
about the pros and cons. I don't want to squash her creativity, so my
first response is to acknowledge all the things I like in an idea, but
often after sleeping on it I have some questions and concerns that I
need addressed before I'm ready to commit resources. Mary travels a lot
so I often send an e-mail the next day with my questions and concerns.
And then I never hear back! She flits off onto the
thing. This lack of response to my questions makes me worry about her
initial analysis as well as her ability to follow through and execute on
any of her ideas. Maybe she doesn't really have the initiative I
thought she did.”
By now you know
that Mary's experience is very different: “I started this job with a
lot of energy and a desire to make a big impact, but after a few months
I am very discouraged. Time and again I meet with John to talk through
a new initiative. He's always very enthusiastic and gives me the green
light, but the next day I get a long e-mail from him completely back
pedaling. He can't tell me 'no' to my face or even engage in a face to
face dialogue, so he does it by e-mail. Classic passive-aggressive
behavior! I could spin my wheels fighting him, but its clear he wants
me to drop the idea and not waste any more time on it. I keep searching
for an initiative that he will buy into so I can take some action and
really show him how much value I can add to the business. I do my best
to present a compelling picture so that he'll HAVE to say 'yes', but it
doesn't seem to do any good. He clearly doesn't want VP's with any
These are two
people with very different styles who could complement each other, but
instead drive each other to the extremes of their typical style.
What do these
situations have in common?
1. Each person's
viewpoint seems perfectly reasonable when viewed in isolation.
2. The two people
are working at cross purposes.
3. Neither is
aware that the other person's behavior is a response to something they
4. Each person
assumes they know what the other is thinking or trying to do, and
they're usually wrong.
5. The frustration
has led them to assign bad intent and to put a derogatory label on the
6. They each
assume the other can't change.
7. Neither person
has brought up the issue with the other.
8. Nothing will
change until they talk openly to each other.
The hard part
about changing a deadly dynamic is that you're often not aware that you
are in the middle of one. It doesn't
dynamic at all. In fact, you feel very stuck in the face of
unreasonable behavior that seems to have nothing to do with you. So the
first step is to try to see what has so far been invisible to you.
(Kind of like being in The Matrix and waking up to discover a whole new
The only way to
fully see a deadly dynamic is to talk to that other person that you are
so frustrated with. Sounds like a good way to make things worse,
right? Well, it will make things worse if you're convinced that the
other person is the problem and your job is to show them the error of
them with a spirit of inquiry and a desire to understand the other side
of the dynamic: I've been frustrated lately with how we've been working
together and I'm wondering if you're frustrated too? I think if we both
shared our perspective we might get a more complete understanding of
what's going on.
You might want to
share this article with them and say: "This article got me thinking that
we might be in the midst of our own deadly dynamic. Would you be
willing to talk about it with me and see if we can get ourselves on a
more productive footing? I'm open to the possibility that I'm doing
something that adds fuel to the fire."
are more silly than deadly. My Dad is a frugal and practical guy and
will wear a pair of jeans until they fall off his body in shreds. My
Mom thinks Dad is a handsome devil (still!) and loves to see him looking
his best. She also thinks that a man who has been so selfless and
generous all his life deserves a few nice things. So, when she is out
and about she picks up a few gifts for him so he can throw out those old
rags and wear something spiffy. Dad's response is to put the new
clothes away until he "really" needs them -- what could be more
practical? But poor Mom never gets the satisfaction of seeing him in
nice clothes, so the next time she is out shopping and sees something in
the window, she thinks, “Won't that look nice on my sweetie” and buys
it! Dad again puts the new duds in the back of the closet and calls me
up and says: “Tell your Mother to stop buying me new clothes! I have a
closet full of things I've never worn!” I tell him the only way to stop
her is to unwrap some of those new things and wear them so she can get
some satisfaction, but he can't get himself to do something so
wasteful. Mom gets no satisfaction, so she continues with her wasteful
shopping. I've told Dad that it is in his power to change the dynamic,
but he says: "I'd
So there you have
it. Would you prefer to complain rather than make a few adjustments in
your own behavior?
(There is also the
Heavenly Dynamic, in which Mom loves to cook gourmet meals and Dad loves
to eat them. Dad takes one bite and his face is instantly transformed
with bliss which he follows up with verbal appreciation. With such a
response, Mom outdoes herself on the next recipe and Dad searches for
more superlatives with which to praise her. Good behavior elicits more
good behavior. We should all be so lucky.)
President of Acorn Consulting, helps executives
teams successfully meet the challenges of
and working with others. Visit her web site to
learn more about
how you can get traction on the critical issues