“Splitting” at Work: How High-Conflict People Divide Organizations

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© 2012 by Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. The concept of “splitting” has been studied for decades by mental health professionals who treat personality disorders – especially borderline and narcissistic personality disorders (BPD and NPD). Splitting is the tendency of those with these disorders to view others as all-good or all-bad. It’s an intensely emotional and defensive dynamic – and it can become highly contagious in the workplace, whether the person is a customer, employee, supervisor or even business owner. People who engage in this splitting dynamic don’t even realize it and often become “high-conflict” people because they increase conflicts around themselves instead of resolving them. Splitting at Work For example, suppose a new employee (let’s call her Brianna) instantly likes another co-worker (let’s call her Gabby). Brianna views Gabby as “all-good” and, after a couple brief discussions, Brianna realizes they both love movies and asks Gabby to get together for a movie on the weekend. This is Brianna’s first week on the job. She’s happy that a co-worker likes her and immediately starts planning get-togethers. After the movie, Brianna wants to increase their contact. They have dinners together and she tells Gabby her life story, including her terrible marriage that broke up, how she hated her mother, and how she really doesn’t like their boss. She shares thoughts and feelings that catch Gabby by surprise. Soon, Gabby feels that things are getting too intense and too close. She tells Brianna that she wants to slow down their friendship and stop seeing movies and having dinners together. They can still be friends at work, Gabby says, but she tells Brianna that she’s “too intense” and that “getting some space” will do them both some good. (Gabby realizes she should have trusted her gut feeling that Brianna was coming on too strong (as high-conflict people tend to do) and avoided becoming so involved with her in the first place. It’s easier to gradually grow a work friendship than it is to slow one down.) Now Brianna flips: she suddenly views Gabby as “all-bad.” She takes this “rejection” by Gabby very personally and feels deeply abandoned by Gabby. She feels a rage against her and starts bad-mouthing Gabby and sending nasty emails about her to other employees. Some employees start backing off from Gabby, thinking that she may be really as rude and nasty as Brianna says. Some of them tell Brianna that they are sorry that she was treated so badly by Gabby – that they always had a sense that Gabby could be a little stand-off-ish, but didn’t realize how insensitive she could be. But other employees start backing off from Brianna, thinking that they could be next to receive her vindictive comments. They privately tell Gabby that they feel bad that she got caught off-guard by this new employee and that they are steering clear of Brianna. The office becomes split. Some employees question the competence or intentions of other employees. Tensions rise, yet no one clearly understands what has happened. The “Splitting” Dynamic Splitting has a predictable and destructive dynamic in any work group: It’s personal: it’s about personal competence, intelligence, ethics, morality, etc. It’s hostile: it’s not just a difference of opinion – it’s highly defensive and blaming. It’s extreme: co-workers take extreme opposite, all-or-nothing positions about each other and especially about the “high-conflict” person. It’s contagious. There may be one or more “high-conflict” people engaging in this intense splitting process, but then others join in and start to look like “high-conflict” people as well – even though they are usually reasonable people. From the outside, it’s hard to understand who is driving the problem, since several people have become “emotionally hooked.” It involves projection. It often involves “projection” onto the others: each “side” starts to accuse others as being divisive and inappropriate in the ways that they are actually being divisive and inappropriate themselves. In our example above, the employees and possibly management have emotionally absorbed Brianna’s all-good and all-bad views of them. She sees some as “all-good” and only sees their positive qualities. She emotionally connects with them and views them as “allies” in the workplace, not just as co-workers. This is because she sees others as “all bad” with no positive qualities whatsoever and believes she needs help defending herself from them. This defensiveness and recruitment of others is a characteristic of personality disorders, especially borderline and narcissistic personality disorders. Brianna sincerely and intensely believes in her all-or-nothing views of others (all-good or all-bad), especially as her self-generated stress in the workplace increases and as she feels more and more defensive around those who don’t seem to like her – which then becomes more and more true, even if it wasn’t true early on. Typical of personality disorders is the tendency to create the very circumstances that the person is trying hard to avoid. For those with BPD, they are often driven by a fear of abandonment but unfortunately behave in clinging and then angry ways (in efforts to hold onto close relationships) that actually alienate those around them – who slowly start avoiding and emotionally – if not physically – abandoning them. For those with NPD, they tend to be driven by a fear of being inferior or helpless, so they behave with an air of superiority and disdain for others, which tends to offend some co-workers, but their efforts to find allies often divide the offended co-workers and the ones who excuse or justify the narcissist’s behavior. In this process of splitting, co-workers are “emotionally hooked” but uninformed. Some of them have a gut feeling that the “high-conflict” person (usually with BPD or NPD) is a problem and feel angry and resentful of that person’s manipulative behavior in the organization. Others see that person as a victim of the others and they may heatedly defend that person. Thus, co-workers begin to reinforce each other’s negative views of the other co-workers, and the whole department or organization splits into two “teams” against each