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Conflict and Offense to Self

  • Norbert K. SemmerEmail author
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Part of the Handbook Series in Occupational Health Sciences book series (HDBSOHS)

Abstract

In addition to having a positive view of oneself (personal self-esteem), being valued by significant others (social self-esteem) is a central human concern that corresponds to the need to belong. Violating the need to belong, encountering relational devaluation by being derogated, excluded, attacked, etc. implies a threat to self. This chapter argues that offense to self through relational devaluation constitutes a major element of many conflicts, and this offense goes beyond the individual and includes social identities. Triggers of relational devaluation are mainly investigated in research on aggression (in a broad sense, i.e., including incivility). Relational devaluation typically induces anger, which, in turn, induces a desire for retaliation. Targets of anger and retaliation, again, often go beyond individuals and include their social groups. To the extent that retaliation is enacted, spirals of mutual relational devaluation can develop. Escalation processes are characterized by such aspects as polarization, conflict enlargement, shifting goals, and increasingly automated appraisals. Issues of self-defense become progressively dominant as compared to substantive issues, and communication increasingly contains “added messages” of devaluation. More and more, conciliatory behavior entails the risk of losing face. Conflict management therefore should focus on core issues and avoid added messages, employ a flexible repertoire of behaviors regarding styles of conflict management, and aim at cycles of tension and tension release to mitigate offense to self. The chapter ends with a consideration of circumstances in which potentially offending others may be unavoidable and with emphasizing the role of a culture of respect for adequate conflict management.

Keywords

Conflict Offense to self Relational devaluation Entitlement Retaliation Added messages Cycles of tension and tension release Culture of respect 

Introduction

Protecting and enhancing a positive self-view is one of the most fundamental human concerns, and it implies a need for being treated with respect and dignity by significant others (Alicke and Sedikides 2009; Leary et al. 2006). Conflicts are likely to threaten self-worth, particularly if they elicit strong emotions, notably emotions related to being offended, and if they include behaviors that contain messages of relational devaluation (Leary and Allen 2011). The approach presented in this chapter contends that perceiving threat to the self is a major element in the development of conflict, which also needs to be taken into account in conflict management.

This chapter will draw not only on the conflict literature “proper” but also on literature on aggressive behavior and on negotiation, as both deal with processes important for our topic and conflict escalation involves behaviors investigated in the context of aggressive behavior (Raver 2013). Furthermore, research and theorizing about the importance of offenses to the self in the context of stress at work are pertinent for our purpose (Semmer et al. 2019). This chapter does not attempt to give a systematic account of the literature on conflict. Rather, it limits itself to highlighting those aspects that are related to offenses to the self.

The chapter is structured as follows. The first part offers a definition of conflict and shows that affect is an important part of many, if not most conflicts. The chapter then emphasizes the importance of protecting and enhancing a positive self in general and the central role of threats to the self by behaviors that convey a message of relational devaluation, a core concept in this chapter. Threats to the self constitute an attack on people’s identity, which includes social identity that is based on belonging to groups one identifies with. There are many ways that relational devaluation can be expressed, the impact it has, and the ways people try to ward off the offense to self associated with it. Based on these considerations, mechanisms of escalation are described, followed by suggestions of how considering potential offenses to the self can help manage conflict.

Conflict

Conflict “begins when a Party (..) feels that others did or will do something that negatively affects the Party’s interest, opinions and beliefs, or norms and values” (De Dreu 2014, p. 1). A frequent classification of conflicts postulates a dichotomy between task conflict (i.e., disagreement about the best way to accomplish a task) and relationship conflict (interpersonal tensions and animosities; Jehn 1997). Extensions of this dichotomy include process conflict as disagreements on how to do things and who is responsible for what (Jehn 1997) and non-task organizational conflict, which refers to such issues as company policy, benefits, hiring decisions, or power (Bruk-Lee et al. 2013).

Other classifications also see conflicts evolving around different issues, in terms of interests (i.e., involving scarce resources, such as money, status); intellectual problems (agreeing on the correct solution for a problem for which such a solution, at least approximatively, exists); and evaluative problems, which involve agreeing on what is morally adequate or just (Harinck et al. 2000; Van Kleef and Côté 2018).

The various classifications of conflicts (for an overview see Jehn 2014) show quite some overlap, and the different types of conflict tend to be interrelated. Thus, task and relationship conflicts often co-occur (De Dreu and Weingart 2003), and the effects of one of them may depend on the intensity of the other (Meier et al. 2013a). Furthermore, conflicts referring to “correct” solutions (intellectual, task-related, cognitive) often develop into relationship conflicts (Friedman et al. 2000; van de Vliert 1998; Yang and Mossholder 2004).

An important characteristic of the different types of conflict is often seen in a differential likelihood for strong emotions to develop. Conflicts referring to “correct solutions” (e.g., task conflict) are expected to be less likely to involve strong emotions (and more likely to foster problem-solving and compromising) than relationship conflicts (Weingart et al. 2015) and conflicts involving value-laden issues (Bazerman et al. 2008; Stöckli and Tanner 2014).

This issue of emotions is of central importance for this chapter, as it contends that the emotions involved typically are related to offenses to the self. It therefore is important to note that including emotional intensity in the conceptualization of conflict issues likely represents an unjustified confound. Although some conflict types are more prone to involve strong affect than others, any conflict can involve emotions but none has to (Jehn and Bendersky 2003; Weingart et al. 2015). At one extreme, a party may deal with a conflict of interest in a strategic, unemotional way (“cold” conflict). At the other extreme, a conflict may be “hot” and involve strong negative and aggressive feelings, such as anger and even hatred, against the other party (Allen and Anderson 2017; Neuman and Baron 2005), and these are not limited to relationship conflicts. Disagreements about tasks (or “correct solutions”) may involve strong emotions because people may be offended if their position is being challenged, implying a threat to their self-image as being competent (Maltarich et al. 2018; Meier et al. 2013a). Seeing one’s own view prevail may well be regarded as “winning” (Levine and Thompson 1996, p. 746), implying self-affirmation; not surprisingly, therefore, affirming one’s position without proper scrutiny of disconfirming evidence is especially likely under self-threatening conditions (Butera et al. 2018).

The focus of this chapter is on “hot” conflicts that clearly involve emotional reactions. It is contended that the type and intensity of emotional expression in conflict behavior and the intensity of emotions felt may often be even more important than the specific issue around which the conflict evolves (Weingart et al. 2015). And it will be argued that a (perceived) threat to the self induced by derogatory messages, referred to as “relational devaluation” by Leary and Allen (2011), is a major element for the development of strong emotions and the development of conflicts. As noted above, this approach requires the consideration of research on aggressive behavior and retaliation, as well as negation research, because this literature deals with the communicative acts that signal offenses to the self in a more specific way than much of the conflict literature (Raver 2013).

The Concern for High Self-Esteem and Relational Devaluation as Offense to Self

The importance of offense to self in conflicts is based on the fact that protecting and enhancing the self and the concern for high self-esteem is one of the most fundamental concerns humans have (Alicke and Sedikides 2009; Leary et al. 2006). On the one hand, people strive to build and maintain a positive self-image in terms of their personal self-evaluation; the personal self is threatened by personal failures or wrongdoing. On the other hand, a positive social self is maintained if one is acknowledged, accepted, and respected by significant others (Semmer et al. 2019). The terms used with regard to social self-esteem differ widely, referring to concepts such as “relational value” (Leary and Allen 2011), “face” (Ting-Toomey and Kurogi 1998), appreciation (Semmer et al. 2019; Stocker et al. 2014), or respect (Grover 2014; Miller 2001; Rogers and Ashforth 2017; van Quaquebeke and Eckloff 2010); there is widespread agreement, however, about their importance. Threats to the social self stem from relational devaluation and therefore violate the need to belong (Leary and Allen 2011); they are in the focus of this chapter.

A core facet of being accepted and respected is to be treated in a just (or fair) way. Justice has a distributive, a procedural, and an interactional aspect (Cropanzano et al. 2001; Deutsch 2014b). Distributive justice refers to outcomes (do I get what I deserve?), procedural justice refers to the way outcomes are determined (are decisions made in a way that is fair and unbiased?), and interactional justice refers directly to how one is treated and thus emphasizes respect and dignity. People tend to feel they are generally entitled to respectful and fair treatment (Miller 2001), and how fairly one is treated is an indicator of one’s worth and dignity (Bies 2015; De Cremer and Tyler 2005; Miller 2001; Rogers and Ashforth 2017). In conflicts, the self often is offended by a lack of respectful or fair treatment, which signifies “relational devaluation” (Leary and Allen 2011). Because fair treatment is seen as the normative default, it follows that relational devaluation, that is, feeling put down, abused, disrespected, treated unfairly, or excluded, constitutes an offense to self and therefore is stressful (Leary et al. 2006; Semmer et al. 2019).

Offense to Self Through Relational Devaluation: Forms, Impact, and Reactions

This part discusses the many different forms relational devaluation can take; this draws from literature on aggressive behavior (in a broad sense, i.e., including low-intensity behaviors such as incivility; Hershcovis 2011) and on justice and retaliation (Tripp and Bies 2009). Describing the impact of relational devaluation and ways of dealing with it, this part prepares the discussion of the importance of relational devaluation in conflicts.

Forms of Relational Devaluation

Relational devaluation comes in many forms (Hershcovis 2011); among them are discrimination on the basis of one’s characteristics, such as age, race, or sex (Dipboye and Colella 2005; Jones et al. 2016); being ignored and excluded (ostracism; Pereira et al. 2013; Williams and Nida 2011); receiving inappropriate feedback (Baron 1988; Krings et al. 2015); not being granted privileges that one feels entitled to (Mikula and Wenzel 2000); and being exposed to aggressive behavior (Neuman and Baron 2005; Nielsen et al. 2016). Aggressive behavior ranges from comparatively mild, mostly verbal and nonverbal “uncivil” behavior (Andersson and Pearson 1999; Cortina et al. 2017) to strong forms of aggression, such as mobbing/bullying (Zapf and Einarsen 2005), and outright physical aggression (Neuman and Baron 2005). Note that relational devaluation often goes beyond simply being disliked; effects on aggressive tendencies are stronger if they also involve rejection, which implies a stronger offense to self (DeBono and Muraven 2014).

In addition to the wide range of forms of relational devaluation, offending messages of devaluation can be expressed in different ways. They do not necessarily have to be expressed directly and explicitly, as in insults. Rather, relational devaluation may be conveyed indirectly. For instance, one can signal exclusion and devaluation by not passing on an important information, by assigning illegitimate tasks, by not mentioning someone’s contribution to a successful project, or by leaving a mess that others have to clean up (Pearson et al. 2000; Semmer et al. 2016). In fact, signs of devaluation may be conveyed in a great variety of behaviors, events, and circumstances. Given that the concern for a positive self-view is so pervasive, people are likely to continuously scan the environment for cues related to self-worth. It is likely that signs of (potential) relational devaluation are detected even at rather mild intensities, as the scanning “should operate continuously (or almost continuously) at an unconscious or preattentive level” (Leary and Baumeister 2000, p. 14). Semmer et al. (2019) therefore speak of a kind of “fire alarm” that detects information related to the self among competing stimuli even if it is rather subtle. Note that such monitoring processes are characteristic not only for individuals but also for groups, which often are highly sensitive to indications that the group’s social identity may be threatened (Levine and Kerr 2007).

Given that self-threatening messages come in so many intensities and forms, it is difficult to develop a specific catalogue of behaviors as a criterion for specifying relational devaluation; rather, it is the social meaning of behaviors in a specific context that counts. In this chapter, a violation of entitlements is regarded as the core characteristic of self-related offenses; this aspect will be developed below.

In the tradition of the psychological literature on aggression, such triggering events represent hindrances to attaining valued goals, and thus frustration, which is associated with negative affect, notably anger (Berkowitz 1989; Fox and Spector 1999). Although frustration does not simply induce aggression, as originally postulated (Dollard et al. 1939), it does tend to induce negative feelings, notably anger, which often result in a tendency to react in an offensive way, even though a number of conditions have to be present for this tendency to actually be translated into offensive behavior (Averill 1997; Berkowitz 1989, 2003; Fox and Spector 1999).

Relational Devaluation and Social Identity

Relational devaluation refers not only to individual characteristics (Levine and Kerr 2007). If people are part of a social group they value, they tend to develop a social identity. Being part of this group shapes their sense of who they are and fosters self-esteem (Haslam 2004). Categories that are sources of social identity are, for example, one’s profession, one’s organization, national or regional background, minority status, or gender. Such social identities often are cherished and a source of self-worth; if the group providing the social identity is derogated, individuals identifying with that group likely experience an offense to self. A salient social identity may even take priority over individual identity; this can go along with deindividuation, which implies that the individuals see themselves more as group members than as individuals.

A strong social identity is based on the perception of “us” and “them” and contributes to ingroup conformity and (perceived) ingroup homogeneity, to polarization regarding outgroups (“we are very different from them”), and to a positive evaluation of the ingroup as compared to outgroups (Haslam 2004). A strong social identity also contributes to viewing actions of the ingroup, and of ingroup members, as justified, and to blame outgroups, and outgroup members, for negative occurrences. Therefore, social identity plays an important role in conflicts. For instance, social identity processes may lead to “vicarious retaliation” (or “vicarious retribution”; Lickel et al. 2006), in which members of an outgroup are punished for alleged misdeeds of members of that outgroup, even if those who are punished have not been involved in the perceived provocation and the individuals who are punishing are not personally among the victims (who, however, are members of their ingroup).

Under threat to their social identity, group processes may develop into “groupthink,” a condition in which group members strongly enforce conformity and discourage disagreement and doubt while derogating the outgroup and believing in the moral superiority of the ingroup. Such groupthink typically results in a lack of careful evaluation of actions of the ingroup, whose success is taken for granted, and of the outgroup, which is seen as so incompetent and weak that it is believed to be incapable of defending itself effectively (Janis 1982; Turner and Pratkanis 1998).

Impact of Relational Devaluation

Obviously, how people feel when experiencing offense to self through relational devaluation, as well as their reactions, can vary considerably. Intense, long-lasting, and regularly occurring harassment such as mobbing/bullying directed specifically against the focal person can have far-reaching consequences akin to post-traumatic stress disorder (Zapf and Einarsen 2005). On the other hand, singular and less intense experiences of devaluation may not leave long-term consequences – although they may well induce strong negative feelings, notably anger and sadness, in the immediate situation (Williams and Nida 2011). If one’s (work) environment is characterized by frequent and chronic relational devaluation, the risk of many kinds of negative effects increases; among them are depression, distress and low satisfaction, counterproductive work behavior, work withdrawal, and turnover intentions, but also lower task performance and creativity as well as helpfulness (Cortina et al. 2017). Furthermore, effects of relational devaluation may spill over into private life and increase work-to-family conflict, decrease marital satisfaction, and impair recovery after work (Cortina et al. 2017; Schilpzand et al. 2016). Also, effects are not limited to those who are direct targets; rather, witnessing others being exposed to relational devaluation may have negative effects, even if the person itself is not targeted (Meier et al. 2013b).

In sum, offenses to the self induced by relational devaluation can have a strong impact, both on the individual and the collective level. Such impacts have implications for the development of conflict, mainly because they entail strong negative affect. Most importantly, they can elicit anger and related reactions such as irritation, annoyance, or even hatred. Anger arguably is the most important single affective reaction that may trigger retaliation, an important aspect of conflict escalation (Tripp and Bies 2009).

Dealing with Relational Devaluation

Dealing with the negative affective consequences of relational devaluation also comes in many different forms; they typically aim at protecting and restoring one’s self-esteem. Restoring self-esteem can be accomplished by processes such as focusing attention on positive aspects of the self (Steele 1988), by engaging in self-serving attributions, that is, attributing negative events or outcomes to external forces (Alicke and Sedikides 2009), but also by derogating others (Fein and Spencer 1997).

Attempts to restore self-esteem also can involve verbal or behavioral acts of revenge or retaliation, such as petty theft, reducing performance and attendance. Insulting, ridiculing, and derogating others and talking about them in a negative way are frequent manifestations as well (Cortina et al. 2017), and so are other forms of aggressive behavior (Schulte-Braucks et al. 2019; Spector and Fox 2005; Tripp and Bies 2009). Some of these behaviors may be quite indirect, sometimes even not recognized by the target. An example is a secretary who learns that her supervisor may run into problems but does not warn her because she is offended by the way her supervisor treats her. Such indirect forms of revenge tend to be chosen when dealing with “offenders” who are more powerful (Pearson and Porath 2005; Tripp and Bies 2009), whereas the more powerful usually can express their anger with less restraint (Pearson and Porath 2005).

Dysfunctional behaviors are often reactions to experienced relational devaluation, but they also constitute relational devaluation themselves. It is important to note that people tend not to see themselves as instigators of incivility or other forms of relational devaluation; rather, they regard themselves as those who react to others’ improper behavior (Helmond et al. 2015; Rosen et al. 2016; Tripp and Bies 2009; Vahle-Hinz et al. 2019). These tendencies are important for conflict spirals and conflict escalation; they imply justification for one’s own behavior but not for that of opponents, and that may go along with an erosion of “attention to standards of conduct” (Pruitt 2008, p. 250).

Relational Devaluation as a Core Element of Conflict

The approach presented in this chapter does not imply that all kinds of aggressive behavior involved in conflicts are triggered by relational devaluation and thus an offense to self. People may enact such behaviors because they are frustrated for reasons that have nothing to do with the target of their behavior (displaced aggression; Pedersen et al. 2017) or because they use aggressive behavior as a means to obtain valued goals (e.g., a promotion) in a “cold,” unemotional way (Allen and Anderson 2017). Nor does feeling relationally devalued lead to revenge necessarily. People may ignore the offensive behavior; they may forgive it; they may accept an explanation or an apology; and they may avoid the instigator; control their anger; leave the situation; or simply do nothing (Cortina et al. 2017; Domagalski and Steelman 2005; Leary and Allen 2011; Mikula and Wenzel 2000; Tripp and Bies 2009).

However, it is claimed that offenses to the self in the context of relational devaluation frequently are important triggers of behaviors that signify the existence of a conflict. In addition, they often fuel and contribute to conflict spirals.

Many authors in this field share this view. Tripp and Bies (2009, p. 24) propose a model according to which “the conflict begins when an offender somehow harms, mistreats, insults, or generally offends the victim. This offense is the trigger of revenge.” Andersson and Pearson (1999, p. 462) regard the point at which “at least one of the parties involved in an exchange of incivilities perceives an identity threat” as the tipping point, which prompts “a more intense behavioral response by the threatened party….” Baumeister, Bushman, and Campbell (2000, p. 26) advance a “theory of threatened egotism, which depicts aggression as a means of defending a highly favorable view of self against someone who seeks to undermine or discredit that view.”

Thus, although it may constitute neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition, a threatened ego can be considered an important ingredient of many conflict situations, and efforts to defend one’s ego (e.g., by retaliating) can be an important element of conflict escalation.

What Triggers Relational Devaluation for Whom?

In the following, perceiving relational devaluation is conceptualized in terms of not respecting entitlements (Mikula and Wenzel 2000). The discussion centers around the nature of entitlement, around the role of blame, and around individual differences.

Entitlements

Obviously, the many forms of relational devaluation described above will not be perceived the same way by everyone. The question is: Who perceives what as relational devaluation? And this question must be asked on an individual as well as on a collective level. In our view, the most promising approach to this question is the issue of entitlement, which refers to something people “believe is rightfully theirs” (Miller 2001, p. 533). Being denied something one feels entitled to constitutes injustice, and thus an offense to self (Mikula and Wenzel 2000; Miller 2001).

Entitlement can refer to many different issues, including being treated in a civil and respectful way, respect for one’s occupational role, respect for a group or organization one belongs to, but also for one’s honor, status, property, privileges, and reputation. Entitlement beliefs can be based on shared standards but may also include “undeserved” privileges (Mikula and Wenzel 2000); for instance, one characteristic of narcissistic people is that they feel entitled for special treatment. Thus, if people feel entitled to privileges, they will feel offended if these privileges are not granted; if they feel entitled to ownership (which may range from a parking space to land for cultivation), they may be offended by someone transgressing into “their” property (see Ayoko and Härtel 2003); if they feel they have the right to give orders that are followed without questioning, they are likely to feel offended if these expectations are not fulfilled, etc.

Cultural values determine to a large degree to what people feel entitled to. Thus, the idea that everybody deserves respect (Miller 2001) characterizes egalitarian cultures, and people in these cultures are likely to be sensitive to being treated respectfully (Leung and Cohen 2011). By contrast, in cultures with high power distance, defined as “the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally” (Hofstede 2011, p. 9), people in powerful positions are regarded as being entitled to privileges that are not granted to the less powerful. It also implies that the powerful need not justify their actions to the same extent as would be expected in cultures with less power distance and those lower in the hierarchy are more ready to accept behavior that would be considered unfair, and thus as implying relational devaluation, than in cultures with less power distance (Gudykunst and Ting-Toomey 1988).

Norms about status exist at various levels of culture, including subcultures, which may be organizational, professional, regional, etc. Status may be inherited, for instance, by noble descent or by belonging to the family of the owner of an enterprise, or acquired through membership in a highly respected group (e.g., medical doctors), by having a superior position in an organization, or by personal characteristics (e.g., being famous for one’s professional achievements, contributions to society, or special virtues). Status provides the entitlement to be treated in an appropriate way, and not receiving entitlements may induce an offense to self and trigger conflict.

Cultures also define which entitlement norms are especially important, and therefore especially offending if not respected. Cultures of “honor” as well as cultures of “face” tend to be very sensitive to insults, and even subtle signs of disrespect may trigger conflict. In “honor cultures” tolerating insult implies losing one’s honor; thus, people may retaliate in order to preserve their honor, and not retaliating would in itself constitute a threat to self (Leung and Cohen 2011).

Feeling offended by disrespect for one’s entitlements is considered appropriate if the entitlement corresponds to cultural norms, and frequently these norms also specify the reaction that would be appropriate (Averill 1997). If people feel overly entitled and display so-called entitlement behavior, their behavior itself becomes a source of relational devaluation, and thus an offense to self, for others (Hackney et al. 2018); obviously, such behavior may fuel conflict.

The Attribution of Blame

An important aspect of perceiving a relational devaluation and being offended is theattribution of blame. Blame includes that that someone is held responsible for inappropriate behavior, assuming that this person, or these persons, could, and should, have acted differently (Cropanzano et al. 2001). In some cases, such as explicit insults, it is obvious who is to blame. In other cases, however, it is less clear who is to blame or even if anyone is to blame. For example, if a machine breaks down and those working with it suspect that the previous shift must have noticed there was a problem but left it for the next shift (an illegitimate stressor; Semmer et al. 2019), this suspicion, and the corresponding blame, may or may not be correct. Even if it is clear who is responsible, the intentions of this person, or these persons, may not be clear, which also influences blame. Thus, an offending remark may reflect an offensive intention, but also carelessness, or lack of social skills; this problem is reflected in research on incivility, which is defined as an offense with “ambiguous intent” (Pearson and Porath 2005).

The problem is that attribution processes, and this includes the attribution of blame, tend to be biased (Tripp and Bies 2009). Specifically, people are more likely to blame others for negative events, whereas they attribute negative events connected to their own actions to circumstances (self-serving attribution; see Harvey et al. 2014; Mezulis et al. 2004); this tendency is enhanced under self-threat (Campbell and Sedikides 1999). Such processes also operate at the collective level. Thus, positive attributions are more likely when judging ingroup, as compared to outgroup, members (Chatman and Von Hippel 2001), and the tendency to attribute negative events to negative intentions is greater when outgroup members are involved (Halabi et al. 2015; Haslam 2004). If tensions between the groups already exist, these attribution tendencies, as well as associated tendencies for strong retaliation, are likely to become even stronger (Rozmann and Walsh 2018). (Note, however, that deviant ingroup members who are perceived as threatening the social identity of the group may be evaluated in an especially negative way; Levine and Thompson 1996; Pinto et al. 2010.)

Individual Differences

On the individual side, there are person characteristics that support blaming others, such as a hostile attribution bias, narcissism, and low agreeableness (Spector 2011). Furthermore, there are characteristics that support especially strong affective reactions to offenses, such as an exaggerated sense of entitlement, which is characteristic of people high in narcissism (Meier and Semmer 2012; Morf and Rhodewalt 2001), high values on trait anger (Spector 2011), or especially strong “justice sensitivity” (Schulte-Braucks et al. 2019). Finally, there are characteristics that support a rather unregulated expression of hostile impulses, as when people have low self-control in general (Morf and Rhodewalt 2001; Spector 2011) or when their self-control is momentarily diminished, for instance, under conditions of “ego-depletion” after stressful situations that already required high self-control (Barlett et al. 2016; Stucke and Baumeister 2006).

Mechanisms of Conflict Escalation

The preceding parts have introduced many ingredients of situations that may induce conflict due to an offense to people’s individual or social self. The initial situation may be characterized as a conflict episode. Many, if not most, of these episodes go by without escalating into larger, and persisting, conflict, whereas other episodes trigger a conflict escalation. So, the question arises as to what are the mechanisms that foster, or prevent, conflict escalation. These mechanisms are likely to change over time if a conflict persists; the focus will first be on initial triggers of conflict and then on mechanisms involved in escalations when a conflict is established.

Initial Triggers

The initial trigger of a conflict can be a frustrating event, which refers to an “interference with a person’s goals or ongoing activity” (Spector and Fox 2005, p. 156). The immediate reaction to frustration is likely to be anger. Anger is especially likely if this interference is attributed to inappropriate behavior of others. Furthermore, anger may also induce a tendency to search for someone to blame (Berkowitz 2003), and, like other emotions, it may act as an “amplifier of moral judgments” (Horberg et al. 2011).

Anger is an emotion that instigates a tendency to “get even,” to act in an aggressive way (Averill 1997; Berkowitz 2003), and this tendency may be directed against the people judged to be responsible but also against people who are part of those people’s social group; furthermore, it may lead to “displaced aggression,” which “refers to retaliatory aggression that is misdirected from an initial source of provocation and turned instead upon an innocent other” (Pedersen et al. 2017). Such reactions are likely to be the stronger the more the ego is involved (i.e., the more the self is offended), which, again, depends on entitlements not being respected. People often regard these aggressive impulses, and the offensive behavior they might induce, as constituting a reaction that is justified by the opponent party’s inappropriate behavior. But the same applies to opponents, implying that they might classify their offensive tendencies and behaviors as a reaction as well. This is the problem of “punctuation,” referring to the issue of what is believed to be the starting point of a sequence of events – which in conflict typically is the others’ behavior (Tripp and Bies 2009). Once such a sequence of accusations is established, there are strong forces toward escalation, because each party is continuously confronted with a “need” to retaliate.

As mentioned above, not all aggressive impulses result in aggressive behavior (Schumann and Ross 2010), as people may decide to ignore, or forgive, the offensive behavior, or opponents may display reconciliatory behavior; group members often find many ways to avoid conflict escalation (Levine and Thompson 1996). In other cases, anger and resentment (and the desire for retaliation) may persist, but there is no opportunity to strike back without a high risk for punishment and failure, for example, if the opponent party is more powerful. In such cases, people may delay their response but wait for an opportunity to strike back later, when an opportunity arises that is associated with less risk of being punished (Pearson and Porath 2005; Tripp and Bies 2009). If offenses occur repeatedly without an opportunity to get even, resentment may build up and eventually lead to an attempt to attack the power of the perceived instigators, for instance, by a joint protest, strike, or political pressure (Berkowitz 2003). Another possibility is that the anger builds up to such an extent that it “eventually breaks through” inhibitions against aggression (Pruitt 1998, p. 488), which diminishes the tendency to calculate the consequences of one’s actions.

Keeping in mind that escalation into intense, or long-standing, conflict is not automatic, the following discussion will focus on the mechanisms that are typical elements of such escalations, with a special emphasis on offenses to self due to relational devaluation.

Conflict Escalation

As conflicts escalate, an escalation spiral can develop into a “self-reinforcing, destructive process” (van de Vliert 1998, p. 369). Conflict escalation is typically characterized by an increasing intensity of a conflict that gets more and more difficult to stop. Pruitt (1998, pp. 486–487) characterizes conflict escalation by the use of “contentious tactics” with an increasing intensity, going from requests to demands, complaints, and angry statements to threats, harassment, and abuse. If groups are involved in conflicts, they have the tendency to escalate more strongly than individuals, as shown by research on interindividual-intergroup discontinuity (Cohen et al. 2010; Meier and Hinsz 2004).

However, there is more to this escalation process than increasing intensity. First, the longer such a cycle of “negative reciprocity” has been going on, the higher the risk of “conflict entrapment,” characterized by an escalation of “commitment to a failing course of action in order to justify prior investments in the conflict issues and in the previously chosen reactions” (van de Vliert 1998, p. 364). This commitment makes it more and more difficult to reverse the course of action, to make compromises, etc., as people run the risk of losing face if they do. Not enforcing one’s position therefore becomes ego-threatening, and protecting the self has been identified as “one of the most powerful drivers” of such conflict entrapment (Sleesman et al. 2012, p. 554), indicating the importance of continued perceived offense to self in driving conflict escalation. This process can be observed in conflict among individuals as well as groups. Conflict escalation and entrapment between groups is often reinforced by factors such as a strong connection of the identity of the organization or powerful leaders to the issue at hand (Sleesman et al. 2018). Social pressures, incentive structures, and constraints set by rules and procedures may further support conflict escalation (Thomas 1992). Such influences increase the threat of losing face by appearing weak because of being too conciliatory.

An ongoing escalation spiral often entails some qualitative changes in appraisals, convictions, behavior tendencies, and goals; many of them are again driven by offenses to the self. Glasl (1982) developed a model of conflict escalation involving nine stages during which such qualitative changes occur. It contains three “main phases” with three stages each. During phase I (Stages 1–3), “the parties are aware of the latent and manifest tensions and antagonisms but try to treat them in a rational and controlled way.” (p. 124). In phase II (Stages 4–6), “stereotyped images are built up and confirmed by ‘self-fulfilling prophecies’…Distrust, lack of respect, and overt hostility evolve…” (p. 127). In phase III (Stages 6–9), “the other party no longer represents any kind of human dignity…. How to hinder the other side becomes a goal in itself” (p. 130). The last phase constitutes rather extreme escalations that are not very likely to be found in organizations. The nine stages are described in more detail in Glasl (1982), Glasl (1999), and Jordan (2000).

To our knowledge, no empirical confirmation of Glasl’s model exists. Indeed, stage models are difficult to confirm empirically, as many of the processes described may happen not during the phase they are attributed to, but earlier or later. It therefore may be more informative to look at the processes involved, without declaring them as part of a given stage.

One can extract six mechanisms from descriptions of conflict escalation, including Glasl’s model; they refer to polarization and simplification, devaluation of opponents, restricting communication, enlarging the conflict, changing goals, and increasingly automatic responses (see also Pruitt 2008; Thomas 1992). In all these mechanisms, offenses to the self play an important role.

Polarization and simplification

At the beginning, the parties may well see that the arguments of the opponent do have some merit, although they are convinced that their own arguments are better. As escalation develops, nuances are increasingly disregarded; advantages of the opposing view as well as disadvantages of one’s own view disappear; differences are magnified (Levine and Thompson 1996). What was more versus less appropriate becomes appropriate versus inappropriate; preferable becomes right, second best becomes worst, and imperfect becomes impossible. Note that such a process may be involved in the transition from task conflict to relationship conflict: As one’s positions is increasingly depicted as simply wrong, and one’s arguments in favor of this position are increasingly discounted, one is likely to feel not taken seriously as a person, experiences relational devaluation, and accordingly an offense to self. Defending one’s position therefore increasingly becomes defending the self, making relational (as opposed to substantive) issues salient and fueling affective reactions such as anger.

Devaluation of opponents

Another mechanism is the explicit or implicit devaluation of opponents. Increasingly, positive actions and successes of the opponents are attributed to external factors (“since they have so many more resources than we do, their ‘success’ is no surprise”); conversely, their negative actions and failures are attributed to stable internal factors, either in terms of competence (“given their inability to organize things well, this mistake was to be expected”) or in terms of their moral quality (“I don’t think they just ‘forgot” to inform us; that looks more like a deliberate undermining”). To the extent this happens, relational devaluation as a driver of conflict escalation becomes obvious.

Restricting communication

As interaction with the opponents increasingly entails offending communication and negative affect, it becomes more and more aversive and tends to be restricted, both in a quantitative and a qualitative sense. Quantitatively, interacting with the opponents is avoided and kept as short as possible if it cannot be avoided. Information that might be useful for the opponent may be withheld. If interaction with the opponents is unavoidable, it may be used as an opportunity to demonstrate their inferiority and one’s own superiority (“I hear your last report was actually on time...”) – which, in turn, may strengthen the tendency to restrict communication as much as possible.

Enlarging the conflict

A conflict may start around a specific issue. As escalation develops, additional issues are likely to be included (Fisher 2016). Most people know constellations of long-standing conflicts implying that A will oppose any suggestion if comes from B – anything B proposes must be wrong from A’s point of view. Such an attitude is supported by the tendency to question the opponents’ competence and moral quality: These people are not able to come up with reasonable suggestions; even if they come up with something that looks good and has nothing to do with the conflict’s core issues, there must be some sinister plan behind it. Thus, enlarging the issues is associated with increased personalization and devaluation.

In addition to including more and more issues, there is a tendency to include more and more people. One looks for supporters, and as escalation continues, their support is increasingly demanded. Pressure on ingroup conformity increases; nuanced positions are regarded as a lack of loyalty (“who is not for us, is against us”), as is “too much contact” with the opponents (I saw you talking to X and Y yesterday; don’t you know they belong to A’s department?”). Newcomers are indoctrinated (“One of these days, X is likely to show up. He will be very friendly – but beware, you can’t trust him”). Such processes can contribute to an almost infinite prolongation of conflicts, characterized by hostile relations between the groups, and a dominance of mistrust, suspicion, and mutual devaluation. As a result, conflict “often becomes independent of its initiating causes and is likely to continue after these have become irrelevant or have been forgotten” (Deutsch 1969, p. 11). There are examples of long-standing conflict between two departments that had been started many years ago by the two department heads. Neither of these – and, indeed, no one who was present when the conflict started – was still in the organization, but the conflict had been perpetuated by “socializing” newcomers into mistrust, interpreting any act as hostile, avoiding contact, and the self-fulfilling prophecies generated as a consequence.

Shifting goals

Initially, goals may be focused on specific issues, such as obtaining a position, getting more resources, seeing one’s strategy being accepted, obtaining (or keeping) certain privileges, and the like. As the number of issues grows, and “rebuttals” are increasingly combined with attacks on each other’s competence and/or moral qualities (and, thus, on each other’s identity as competent and valuable people), goals shift to identity issues, and defending one’s own self-image and reputation but increasingly also undermining the opponents’ reputation become goals in and of themselves. In extreme cases, destroying the opponent becomes so dominant that even grave losses for one’s own party become acceptable (e.g., insulting or undermining an opponent in such an obvious way that the organization punishes the offender).

Increasingly automatic appraisals

Increasingly, elaborated cognitive strategies of analyzing the situation, trying to understand the motives and arguments of the opponents, and weighing the pros and cons of possible strategies give way to a mere activation of existing beliefs and stereotypes, and the certainty associated with these beliefs goes along with less systematic information processing (Douglas et al. 2008; Van Kleef and Côté 2018). Ambiguous actions of opponents are “immediately recognized” as being driven by bad motives; the inferiority of the opponents is regarded as a fact, and so are convictions such as “they will never change.” Minor cues often are sufficient for activating such belief systems, including scripts about “the only way we can respond….” Furthermore, the strong emotions (notably anger) associated with “hot” conflicts induce perceptions and appraisals based on that anger and a tendency for information processing to be comparatively shallow (Van Kleef and Côté 2018) and based on stereotypes and heuristics (Douglas et al. 2008; Lerner et al. 2015). Defending one’s own and attacking the opponents’ identity are central parts of the stereotypes that are activated.

In sum, as escalation progresses, qualitative changes occur, characterized by increasing costs of constructive behavior in terms of losing face and thus entrapment. Six mechanisms are described that contribute to escalation. They all contribute to an increasing dominance of relational issues, whereas substantive issues recede or disappear. The relational topics often supplant substantive arguments; avoiding these relational topics in favor of focusing on substantive issues therefore is pivotal for conflict management, as will be discussed in the next section.

Conflict Management

Discussions of conflict management frequently focus on the dual-concern model (Rahim 2002; Thomas 1992). This model regards conflict behavior in terms of a combination of (a) concern for one’s own interest and (b) concern for the others’ interest. Typically, five “styles” are derived from this model (Pruitt 1998; Tjosvold et al. 2014; van de Vliert 1998). They entail competing or dominating (high concern for own, low concern for others’ interests), accommodating or obliging (high concern for others’, low concern for own interests), avoiding (both low), and collaborating or integrating (both high). The fifth style represents compromising. The five styles represent trait-like tendencies on the one hand and are influenced by situational characteristics, such as conflict history, the issues and the people involved, and social pressures to appear “tough,” and momentary characteristics such as ego-depletion, on the other hand.

Traditionally, a collaborative or integrative approach is recommended, emphasizing “open-minded discussion” (Tjosvold et al. 2014) or “constructive controversy (De Dreu 2014). Frequently this general recommendation is qualified by contingencies, as when Thomas (1992) recommends avoidance when the issue is trivial or when a cooling-off period is needed and compromising if goals are mutually exclusive, parties are equally powerful, and consensus cannot be reached. Other authors, notably van de Vliert (Euwema et al. 2003), emphasize using not one strategy but a “conglomerated” behavior that combines several strategies flexibly. Furthermore, it often is recommended to reduce affective conflict and to stimulate a moderate amount of cognitive (or task-related) conflict (Rahim 2002). Finally, time is taken into account in that short-term interventions may focus more on the process of conflict handling, whereas a long-term perspective implies structural changes.

The following discussion will try to highlight issues related to offense in terms of relational devaluation and how communication can be influenced to reduce such offense. The focus will therefore be more on process issues than on types of conflict (DeChurch et al. 2013), and it will be more on specific behaviors of conflict management than on the general styles or strategies entailed in the dual-concern model. The key message of this discussion is that any behavior that might imply a relational devaluation should be avoided unless there are specific and important reasons for accepting an offense to the self; and if such reasons exist, offense should be limited to an absolute minimum.

Avoiding Unnecessary Relational Devaluation Through “Added Messages”

The processes of conflict escalation, such as polarizing, extending issues, proving one’s superiority, and damaging the opponents’ reputation, imply that many communicative acts are sending derogatory messages that go well beyond a message of disagreement that might be functional in solving a conflict. In other words, from the perspective of optimal conflict management, many communications entail unnecessary relational devaluation. For example, when giving (negative) feedback about someone’s behavior or performance, people often go beyond the issue to be criticized (e.g., “you often are late for meetings”) by combining it with nonverbal behavior (e.g., eye-rolling), by expressing it in an angry voice, by adding offending attributions regarding motivation (“you don’t seem to care about our meetings”) or competence (“you seem to have problems with time management”), or by overgeneralizing (using qualifications such as “always” or “never”). Furthermore, extreme classifications (e.g., “this is nonsense!”) may imply added messages, such as “you are a fool!” Such messages add relational devaluation that is not necessary for making a position clear. In Weingart et al. (2015) terms, such messages would be considered high in directness and in entrenchment (an indicator of high oppositional intensity). Such ways of expression turn the criticism regarding a specific type of behavior (e.g., being late) into a criticism aimed at the person or group. Note that such “added messages” usually do not simply give more weight to the criticism; rather, they detract from the substantive message and direct attention to the offense to the self. As noted above, the threshold for perceiving such messages tends to be low, implying that even subtle “added messages” can make a difference. For instance, negotiators who immediately answer a proposal with a counterproposal, or who voice disagreement before, rather than after, an explanation, have been shown to be less effective (Rackham 1993). Immediate counterproposals and disagreements can be offensive to the self because they signal premature rejection of the opponent’s position without careful consideration and thus a lack of respect for the opponent’s competence or reasonableness. Retaliation is typically triggered by relational devaluation aspects of the communication. This implies that in many cases, conflict escalation is driven by messages that are not part of the substance of the conflict but rather constitute added messages that constitute an offense to the self.

Note that refraining from such added messages does not imply that one should not send clear messages of disapproving and being angered. However, there are constructive ways to express anger, such as telling the opponent that one is angry while staying calm or, at least, keeping the anger expression at a low intensity (Davidson and Mostofsky 2010; Gibson et al. 2009; Linden et al. 2003). Thus, leaving out the unnecessary added messages is not to be mistaken for a conflict avoidance strategy. Rather, the disagreement/disapproval is directed at the issue at hand, rather than the person, which is a frequent recommendation in the literature on conflict (e.g., Glasl 1999; van de Vliert 1998) and on feedback (Krings et al. 2015). “One of the most important skills is to be able to disagree with each other’s ideas while confirming each other’s personal competence…” (Johnson et al. 2014, p. 92).

In a similar vein, depicting impressions and attributions as facts, rather than interpretations, draws attention to the opponent’s self. “You have been late so often that it is now clear you don’t care about our progress” draws attention away from the substance (being late) and toward the person (does not care). Again, the substantive issue does not have to be avoided – even including possible interpretations. For instance, saying something like “Frankly, I am starting to wonder how much you care about our progress, given that you have been late so many times now” expresses quite some irritation and disapproval yet leaves open to what degree a personal interpretation is correct.

As an aside, these considerations support the conclusion that the type of conflict may often be less important than the way it is dealt with (DeChurch et al. 2013; Weingart et al. 2015). The “added messages” that derogate the opponent (and may trigger retaliation and escalation spirals) actually detract from the substantive issues, and they become more and more salient as escalation progresses (Fisher 2016).

Trying to Understand the Opponents’ Perspective

Showing respect implies listening attentively to the others’ concerns and trying to understand their perspective (van Quaquebeke and Eckloff 2010; van Quaquebeke and Felps 2018). In situations of conflict, however, arguments of opponents are easily dismissed and often poorly understood, due to a bias toward regarding one’s own standpoint as more legitimate than that of the opponents, attributing actions by the opponents to weaknesses in terms of morality and/or competence, and regarding the other standpoint as not deserving close scrutiny. With escalation progressing, the interpretations are increasingly taken not as own interpretations but as “facts.” It is not surprising, therefore, that many authors emphasize the crucial role of understanding the others’ perspective (e.g., Cohen et al. 2010; Janssen and Van de Vliert 1996). This is partly a question of a basic concern for the interest of the other side, as described in the dual-concern model; it is, however, also a question of behavior. Thus, people often focus on preparing their reply while an opponent is speaking; as attentional capacity is limited, this elaboration of one’s own reply detracts from what the opponents are saying and may make it difficult to fully comprehend their position (next-in-line effect; Bond et al. 1991). Arguments of the other side therefore are simply rejected rather than really challenged based on critical examination. This is important, as challenging the thoughts of people who vent, while not making them feel better, can foster problem-solving (Behfar et al. 2019).

Discussion rules that foster understanding (e.g., asking participants to summarize the opponents’ position) may therefore be helpful for respectful communication, as might attempts by group leaders or mediators to question interpretations of the opponents’ actions and motives. Furthermore, Douglas et al. (2008) recommend attribution training to counter tendencies of attributing negative and ambiguous acts and messages to malevolence and thus to be more open for alternative interpretations, including legitimate “underlying concerns” (DeChurch et al. 2013; van de Vliert 1998).

Focusing on Core Issues

Conflict escalation is characterized by increasing the number of issues in a conflict (Fisher 2016). As escalation progresses, it becomes difficult to disentangle these issues. Many, even minor, events are being “incorporated” and give rise to reactions that are not focused on specific issues and events but on general issues such as the opponents’ incompetence or malevolence (see the concept of “event-blurred reactions” by Douglas et al. 2008). “Carving out” the key issues therefore may help refocusing on substantive issues, rather than on the offense to the opponents’ self, which is often contained in the added messages discussed above. If the core issues are very large, they may be broken up into a number of smaller ones (van de Vliert 1998). These resulting issues should be coined in rather specific terms (e.g., “do we want to focus on improving the current project, or do we need to develop a new one?”), because more abstract terms (e.g., “do we want to be innovative, or do we want to stick to what we have?”) tend to be more confounded with issues of identity; specific definitions therefore make it easier to discount the many added messages that have become dominant in the course of conflict escalation and thus to reduce offenses to the self.

Conglomerated Behavior and Cycles of Tension and Tension Release

Effective conflict management requires flexible and adaptive behavior (Deutsch 2014a; van de Vliert 1998). Such flexibility can be demonstrated in two ways; one refers to combining different strategies, rather than using one strategy only. The second refers to cycles of tension and tension release and thus incorporates the time aspect more explicitly.

Conglomerated Behavior

Conflict styles and corresponding behaviors according to the dual-concern model are often described in terms of one dominant tendency. However, as emphasized by van de Vliert (1998), one should not stick to one strategy, such as dominating, only but rather combine several strategies (“conglomerated behavior”). Regarding relational devaluation, one of the most promising combinations is being firm (akin to a dominating style and thus potentially self-threatening) combined with showing interest in finding a solution and acknowledging the concerns of the other side. For instance, responding to an attack with a counterattack increases the risk of losing face for the opponents if they give in or offer a compromise. Clearly refuting the attack (“I cannot accept these accusations”) but combining it with a conciliatory gesture (“but we may well find a way out of this dilemma”) may be most promising, not least because it enables the other side to maintain face when being cooperative. Similarly, the description of an optimal combination of different behaviors in terms of four f’s, firm, fair, flexible, and friendly, as discussed by Deutsch (2014a, pp. 27–28), contains behaviors that signal respect and appreciation.

Temporal Issues: Cycles of Tension and Tension Release

One way of specifying what “good handling” of conflicts could mean and of preventing tensions from building up to a high level might be seen in an aspect of time that has not received much attention in the conflict literature: cycles of tension and tension release. In occupational stress research, it is well established that “it is not primarily the acute stress reaction that is detrimental for an organism but rather the sustained activation…” (Sonnentag and Fritz 2015, p. S75); the term “effort-recovery cycle” (Meijman and Mulder 1998) has been used to describe this phenomenon (see also McEwen 1998). Regarding family conflict, Wilson and Gottman (2002, p. 251) describe the important role of repair: “We contend that it may not be conflict per se (i.e., nonphysical conflict) that leads to negative child outcomes, but a failure of repair mechanisms” (see also Jehn and Bendersky 2003). And Bales (1999, p. 167) describes processes of effective team decision-making as patterns of “increasing conflict, argument and tension, eventually interrupted by jokes and laughter, and then followed by signs of relaxation and friendly remarks….” Other possibilities are apologies and explanations (Schumann 2018). These behavioral patterns may interrupt a beginning escalation spiral and mitigate the negative effects of relational devaluation. Signaling that offenses to the self that might have occurred were due to the heat of the moment and do not imply a permanent derogation of opponents can compensate for or repair offenses to the self to a certain degree and signal intent to cooperate.

Such patterns have an additional advantage with regard to potential positive effects of conflict. It has often been contended that conflict, notably task conflict, may be stimulating for good outcomes without doing a lot of damage in terms of hurt feelings, provided that tensions are not too high (Weingart et al. 2015) and the conflict is handled well (De Dreu 2014); it therefore might be stimulated in moderate amounts (e.g., Rahim 2002). Cycles of tension and tension release could support such an approach by fostering an exchange of opposing positions, even at the cost of tension building up, but interrupting this process by tension release before tensions get too intensive and tendencies of warding off self-threats through relational devaluation become dominant.

When an Offense to Self May Have to be Accepted

Avoidance typically is not a recommended strategy, unless the issue is trivial and not likely to be a persisting source of conflict (Thomas 1992). However, being involved in conflict is a stressful experience, and avoidance behavior may promise staying out of trouble, often including staying away from the risk of being offended oneself. Avoidance motivation is higher if influential people are involved in the conflict, such as people in high positions and/or those who have special expertise that is important for an organization. Targets of conflict behavior therefore often try to avoid the instigators of such behavior. Avoidance is especially likely if people see no promising way of getting even directly, due to the higher status or greater organizational support for the instigators (Porath and Pearson 2012).

However, people in leadership positions, who have a responsibility to deal with conflicts, also are inclined to turn a blind eye (Pearson et al. 2000); this tendency is well known with regard to giving honest performance feedback (Waung and Highhouse 1997). Shying away from dealing with conflicts or from provoking conflict by giving honest feedback may have very negative consequences in the long run. It can imply hindering learning processes, failing to support targets of aggressive behavior, failing to intervene at early phases of conflict development, and tolerating a culture of incivility. It therefore is sometimes necessary to accept confronting, and possibly offending, someone in order to protect others, to maintain quality standards, and to enforce a culture of civility (see Pruitt 2008).

These considerations are not meant to serve as an excuse for offending behavior. When considering whether to intervene in light of inappropriate behavior, for instance, because it involves relational devaluation, one has to consider carefully if this intervention might be offending and whether or not this offense can be accepted. It follows that such behavior should not be fueled by momentary anger, premature attributions, and activated stereotypes, as is often the case in ongoing conflicts. Rather, one has to decide strategically, based on carefully weighing pros and cons. Furthermore, one should think about ways to keep the offense to the absolute minimum necessary and to avoid any “added messages” (“minimally invasive feedback”; Semmer and Jacobshagen 2010). This can be achieved, for instance, by a calm, rather than angry, tone of voice, by refraining from nonverbal intensifiers such as eye-rolling, by giving feedback in a dyadic situation rather than in front of others, by focusing on core issues rather than minor ones, or simply by not repeating criticism over and over again (Krings et al. 2015). Furthermore, by emphasizing not only negative aspects but positive aspects as well, one can offer messages that confirm the other’s self in addition to the negative messages that need to be communicated as well. Thus, avoiding negative “added messages,” and offering positive messages as well, can keep the offense to the self to a minimum.

Building a Culture of Trust and Respect

Solving a “well-established” conflict may require external help by professional mediators or counsellors (Glasl 1999). However, long-lasting conflicts often start with quarrels about minor issues, and with uncivil behavior, before they escalate; in these early phases, conflict escalation may be prevented. Organizations and their representatives, that is, people in leadership positions, therefore have an important role in detecting early signs of conflict and preventing conflict escalation. From the perspective of this chapter, a central focus of early signs should be on behaviors that carry the potential for offending the self, notably the “added messages” discussed above. Leaders should develop a repertoire of behaviors that are promising for carving out the substantive issues, for identifying biased attributions and added messages, and for interrupting escalation spirals.

To be able to live up to these responsibilities requires social competences, and organizations should not leave employees and supervisors alone but offer training. Over and above training interventions, however, organizations should aim at establishing and supporting a culture of respect that includes a fair way of dealing with conflict. Such a culture must not only be proclaimed in “mission statements” but also enforced in everyday life. Pearson and Porath (2005) offer suggestions on strategies to implement a culture of respect, for example, a zero-tolerance expectation for incivility, reflecting about one’s own modeling behavior, weeding out trouble early, teaching civility, listening carefully, reacting quickly to instances of incivility, heeding warning signals, not excusing powerful instigators, and investing in exit interviews.

To support a culture of civility, rather comprehensive interventions akin to organizational development may be helpful (Coleman 2018; Rahim 2002; van de Vliert 1995). An example is the “Civility, Respect and Engagement at the Workplace (CREW)” program, which has successfully been applied and evaluated. Presupposing management commitment, this program entails facilitated discussions about respect, such as ways of expressing respect and disrespect, conflict management, camaraderie, etc., combined with exercises regarding, for instance, active listening and conflict behavior. Specific content is adapted to the organization where the intervention takes place and to specific units within this organization. Based on surveys before and after the program, intervention sites have shown improvements as compared to control sites, and these changes were maintained well beyond initial effects (Leiter et al. 2012; Osatuke et al. 2013).

It should be added that respect and appreciation are not only shown in social interactions. The way work is organized also sends social messages that can signal respect and appreciation – or offenses to the self (Semmer et al. 2019). Thus, allocating tasks that are not part of one’s core role or are considered unnecessary (“illegitimate tasks”) signal a lack of respect for people’s occupational roles; they can be described as “identity-relevant stressors” (Thoits 1991). By contrast, granting autonomy signals that employees are trusted to use this autonomy in a responsible and competent way; dealing quickly with problems that impede performance, such as malfunctions of machines or material (i.e., organizational constraints or performance constraints; Pindek and Spector 2016), signals respect and caring (Semmer et al. 2016).

A culture of respect also can foster positive contact and a common superordinate identity among organizational members, which may prevent conflict escalation. However, it is often important not to emphasize such a common social identity at the expense of subgroup identities but rather to support the expression of both (Dovidio et al. 2007) and to pursue “a carefully managed strategy of ‘cultural’ pluralism within an overarching entity” (Hogg et al. 2017, p. 575).

Final Thoughts

Conflicts are part of everyday (working) life. They range from minor encounters of incivility to full-fledged and escalated conflict, and they may involve only two people, different groups, or whole departments. The focus of this chapter is on an aspect that runs through all forms, stages, and contexts of conflict: offenses to the self by messages that signal relational devaluation. Such offenses are never totally avoidable and sometimes even have to be accepted deliberately. Yet, in many cases, these offenses are unnecessary “added messages” that may momentarily boost the self-esteem of (at least one of) the parties involved but are detrimental over time and actually detract from the substantive issues that may be worthwhile to “fight” about. Avoiding, repairing, and sanctioning such unnecessary offenses – in everyday social interactions, in the design of jobs and working conditions, and in organizational cultures – can support a culture of respect and civility that profits both organizations and their employees. In such a culture, the conflicts that keep occurring even under the best circumstances may be bearable and not leave longtime resentments. Furthermore, such a culture also increases the chances that the often claimed positive and stimulating effects of conflicts may be promoted by supporting a focus on substantive issues; on avoiding offenses, notably unnecessary added messages; on repairing offenses that do occur; and on embedding such developments in a context of support and respect.

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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of BernBernSwitzerland

Section editors and affiliations

  • Morten Wahrendorf
    • 1
  • Jian Li
    • 2
  1. 1.Institute of Medical Sociology, Centre of Health and Society (CHS)University of DüsseldorfDüsseldorfGermany
  2. 2.Fielding School of Public Health, School of NursingUniversity of California Los AngelesLos AngelesUSA

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