7 Steps to Tackle Organizational “Splitting”

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7 Steps to Tackle Organizational “Splitting”

Why it happens. What you can do.

© 2016 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. and L. Georgi DiStefano, LCSW


Organizational splitting occurs when several people in an organization split off in hostile opposition to the rest of the group. This can occur in political groups, such as the recent Brexit of Britain from the European Union (EU); in businesses (Disney, Hewlett Packard, U-Haul, etc.); in churches and other faith-based organizations; and in volunteer/nonprofit groups. We do a lot of consulting about high-conflict personalities and get a fair amount of calls from members of such organizations, such as city councils, school boards, homeowners associations, small businesses, university departments, high-tech firms and hospital administrations. The common theme is that there are one or more high-conflict people who are causing a split in the organization, which sometimes risks endangering the very existence of the organization. This article addresses some of the common issues and approaches that can be taken.


Why Splitting Happens

This dynamic often catches people by surprise. It is generally promoted by high-conflict people (HCPs), who lack normal conflict resolution tools, lack insight into themselves and are preoccupied with blaming others. Often they are new to the organization or new to positions of power within it. Those who have been around a long time since a dispute over long-established policies and procedures. While there are many real issues that may cause dissension in an organization’s management, what stands out in organizational splitting is the hostility toward other members and the lack of real substance underlying many of their high-conflict complaints.


Recognizing High-Conflict Personalities

HCPs tend to see the world in all-or-nothing terms. Within an organization, they see others in all-bad terms and themselves in all-good terms. This often has to do with narcissistic personalities, which by their nature see themselves as superior to everyone around them. If they have personality disorders or traits, this means that they cannot reflect on their own behavior and misdeeds, but instead are preoccupied with the behavior and misdeeds of others. They also tend to present themselves as heroes in a battle against villains. While there may be some real issues underlying the organizational disputes, what marks splitting is the extremes of these characteristics:

  • All-or-nothing thinking

  • Intense emotions, out of proportion to the issues or situation

  • Extreme hostility toward some other group members

  • Recruitment of negative advocates (including the media) against the others

  • Seeing selves as extreme heroes

  • Seeing others as “out of touch,” “the establishment,” “failed leaders”; and organizations and institutions as “broken,” “beyond repair” and other extreme terms.


Why is This Occurring More Now?

We live in a time of increasing social change and instability. We can travel and change communities and participate in organizations fairly easily. With modern technology, we know about different problems and different solutions much more quickly than ever before. We increasingly are operating and thinking as individuals, rather than as teams or communities. However, this has produced less stable organizations and institutions, with the constant pressure for change.

With these changes, there appears to be more people with high-conflict personalities, especially narcissism, whereby they think they have the right answers to an organization’s problems—and that everyone who thinks differently is wrong. HCPs also seem to want their organizations to act more like families, and to meet more of their needs for intimacy, respect, and identity, than organizations have traditionally attempted to provide. Thus, the intensity of their drive to be in control of the organization and the intensity of their frustration when other people do not give in to their points of view. It’s more personal for them because they tend to have fewer outside relationships and supports.


What You Can Do

  1. Recognize the problem early on: Since organizational splitting often catches people by surprise, it helps to regularly look for warning signs. (See list above.)

  2. Avoid becoming a Negative Advocate for a possibly high-conflict person: Resist the urge to agree with someone who says everyone else is wrong or that the organization is “broken.” It’s popular to think in these terms nowadays and it makes individuals feel more important, but it harms organizations. It’s better to keep an arms-length relationship with people who talk this way.

  3. Recognize that others are at risk of becoming the HCP’s Negative Advocates. Don’t underestimate the power of HCPs to persuade others to follow them. Unless you are aware of this dynamic, they can easily fool people and emotionally hook them into agreeing that others are “failed leaders” and that the organization is “broken.” Educate members early and often to watch out for all-or-nothing thinking, extreme terms to describe problems and extreme solutions. Also, remember it is important to respond to misinformation in a timely manner. Lack of correction will often lead to rumor, and innuendo or run the risk of being accepted as fact.

  4. Propose realistic solutions to your organization’s problems and discourage others from taking extreme positions. Express interest in problem-solving; discourage “flame-throwing” or “mud-slinging.” Have an openness and interest in other people’s points of view. Promote and maintain civility within the organization.

  5. Have organizational structures that maintain order and appropriate procedures for making proposals and making change. Have everyone included in setting meeting agendas, but also have someone in charge of maintaining order at meetings. (See article: Setting The Agenda and our other workplace articles.)

  6. Have your organization learn collaborative skills, including setting limits on extreme behavior in a respectful way. Also, have the whole organization become educated about the prevalence of HCPs and the related risks of organizational splitting.

  7. Learn the methods and strategies that assist you in managing high-conflict workplace situations. Training in the CARS Method®, for example, can provide tangible long-term benefits to your organization.


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BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high-conflict personalities. He has written more than twenty books on the topic, developed methods for managing high-conflict disputes, and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries. He is also co-host of the popular podcast, It’s All Your Fault, and writes a popular blog on Psychology Today.

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