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IIRP President John W. Bailie, Ph.D., continues to explore the issue of conflict in the workplace on his personal blog Leading Conflict. With this piece, he launches a new series of articles to "explore some of the most common behavior profiles that persistently generate toxic conflict and provide tips on how to respond to each."


In the article Creative vs. Toxic Conflict at Work, I discussed one of the key features that distinguishes toxic conflict from creative conflict.

Creative conflict is rooted in the dynamics between people. In creative conflict, the motives and goals of group members are typically healthy and focused on a sincere desire to solve concrete external problems and challenges.

Toxic conflict is typically rooted in the personalities of individual people. While creative conflict is rooted in an external problem, toxic conflict is rooted in the problematic behavior of one or more individuals.

Toxic conflict is hard on a team. Thankfully, most of the behavior that generates toxic conflict is common and predictable.

This means that you can plan ahead for behaviors that are certain to recur. Think of these “Toxic Workplace Behavior Profile” articles as your top-secret files on how to prepare and respond strategically to the most disruptive and toxic behaviors in your workplace.

Code Name: The Submarine

Motto: Run silent, run deep.

Favorite Song: Every Breath You Take – The Police (Feel free to play in the background while reading.)

Favorite Movie: Das Boot

Behavior: In naval warfare, the role of the submarine is to stay hidden and silently stalk those in the sunlight above from the black depths below. It is the same with the office submarine.

The submarine smiles and nods politely in meetings. They say hello every morning, maybe even pausing to compliment your fetching sweater.

But then, the submarine submerges…

The submarine is the one who says nothing during the brainstorming session, but then criticizes ideas, plans, coworkers and leaders through gossip and innuendo. They target other impressionable coworkers to influence, but never openly. Their undermining and critical conversations take place at the water-cooler, in the parking lot, and during the after-hours social gathering.

The submarine isn’t toxic because of its criticisms. It’s toxic because it never shares those criticisms openly, in the appropriate forum, or with the person who can actually do something about it.

Also, the submarine draws otherwise healthy colleagues into its dark and watery lair by ensnaring them in frequent negative conversations – often marked by gossip and personal attacks on other coworkers. Consciously or not, the submarine uses these conversations to manipulate others into colluding with them, even if others do so with hesitation. Without assistance from leaders, it is very difficult for co-workers to break away from the submarine’s secretive pattern of behavior.

The submarine lowers morale, undermines plans and decisions, and creates silent factions in the team.

As in naval warfare, unless you are proactive and plan ahead, you are not likely to know about the submarine’s presence until the damage is done.

Do Not: When dealing with a submarine in the workplace, there is one thing you must never do. Do not engage in sub-on-sub warfare. Do not play the submarine’s game by going into the silent deep with them. They are better at fighting from the shadows than you are – and generally willing to play much dirtier. Sure, sub-on-sub warfare sounds exciting, but it frequently ends badly for everyone.

Do: As soon as you suspect a submarine is at work, you must make its presence known publicly and keep it on your radar. My brother spent the last decade of the Cold War hunting and tracking Soviet subs from the air. Using radar and a net of underwater listening devices, their goal was to keep constant contact with these hidden Russkies. The ocean is a great place to hide, but it’s not a great medium in which to maneuver quickly. Once you have a sub targeted and tracked by surface and air assets, it is far less deadly and much easier to neutralize.

At work, use team meeting time to talk about the responsibility to raise concerns openly and with the person who can do something about it. If approached with toxic conversation at the water-cooler, how do you handle it? If you are getting sucked into secretive complaining, what do you do? Talk about these things on a regular basis. Let the team brainstorm how to handle these common problems and temptations.

As a leader, you must intentionally role-model what this looks like and plan to do this as a regular part of your team leadership. These norms will ultimately limit the space in which a potential submarine can operate.

You cannot completely eliminate the operating area of a submarine, but you can make the environment inhospitable.

When a specific submarine is personally identified, or even suspected, you must confront them. Check out the tips in this article to help you overcome the fear of these conversations.

You will almost always be operating on partial information or just a hunch. This is fine. You don’t need, or want to spend the time to create, an airtight case. Simply approach the person with curiosity and questions.

Probe more than you accuse. Problem-solve more than you judge.

If they admit to submarine-like behavior, compliment and thank them. Admitting to toxic behavior takes courage. Then, help them share any ideas and legitimate concerns openly and in the most effective forum.

If they are just complaining and gossiping, tell them they need to stop, insist on a plan of behavior change, and make this a regular topic in supervision until you’re confident the behavior has ceased.

Consider using group processes such as circles to encourage these colleagues to process their past behavior publicly and share their plan for change with the team.

Humility check… Though some people habitually engage in this behavior, you have probably behaved this way at some point as well. If so, consider sharing this with your team and tell them what you will do to not repeat this behavior in the future. Role-modeling this type of risk-taking will be a powerful example to others of how you expect them to respond when confronted about the same behavior.


 This piece first appeared on Dr. Bailie's blog, Leading Conflict.