“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:

  1. It’s personal: it’s about personal competence, intelligence, ethics, morality, etc.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.”

  4. 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 other.


The History of Staff Splitting    

This splitting dynamic has been identified and discussed for years in hospitals, outpatient mental health settings and drug treatment. These are settings that commonly involve patients with various health and mental health problems so that it is not surprising that they report “staff splitting” as a regular phenomenon. However, it is usually a surprise to those in non-healthcare settings, and we are seeing this increasingly occur in workplace conflicts, professional organizations, volunteer groups, churches, high-conflict legal disputes, political parties and government agencies.

Marsha Linehan is a researcher in the treatment of BPD. Twenty years ago she stated that this dynamic is common in treatment programs:

“Staff splitting,” as mentioned earlier, is a much-discussed phenomenon in which professionals treating borderline patients begin arguing and fighting about a patient, the treatment plan, or the behavior of other professionals with the patient. The responsibility for the dissension among the staff is then attributed to the patient, who is said to have split the staff; hence the term “staff splitting.” (M. Linehan, Cognitive Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder, Guilford Press, 1993)

However, Linehan points out that avoiding this dynamic is the responsibility of the staff, rather than blaming the patient. This same dynamic can also occur when there is any patient with a personality disorder or traits involved on a unit or a professional with these tendencies on the team. This split often triggers some team members to strongly demand a firm approach to handling the individual patient or professional and other team members to strongly demand a supportive approach to the individual patient or professional. Emotions become intense and team members become rigid in their problem-solving approaches, which leads to impasse and escalating tension. Often rumors are spread about each side’s extreme statements or behavior, and more and more people become involved.

Splitting tends to be highly contagious, especially in demanding situations and under stress. Therefore, teams need to be trained in avoiding the splitting process and repairing it immediately when it does occur. From this author’s experience working in hospitals and legal settings, the following principles help avoid staff splitting.


7 Solutions to Workplace Splitting

1.    Recognize it as an unconscious process often associated with a customer, employee or supervisor under duress with extreme, all-or-nothing thinking

2.    Anticipate and avoid getting intensely “emotionally hooked”; recognize when it is occurring and rationally consider other viewpoints

3.    Don’t automatically believe what you hear; check out allegations against customers, other employees or managers directly

4.    Avoid extreme responses: anger at a customer, employee or manager; avoid totally punitive solutions or total excuses as solutions

5.    Remain flexible and open-minded at all times

6.    Collaborate to help the customer, employee or manager integrate the opposite perspectives; usually, solutions involve a combination of supportive AND firm approaches

7.    Treat all customers, employees and managers with Empathy, Attention and Respect (E.A.R.) at all times, regardless of your perception of their behavior.

Training whole teams together in the above competencies appears to be the most effective method for creating teamwork and a team culture of effective and efficient care. By becoming aware of this dynamic and understanding the characteristics of high-conflict people (often those with BPD and NPD, but not always), it is possible to avoid getting emotionally hooked into the splitting process in the first place. It is really about personality awareness and self-awareness. Once team splitting has occurred, it often is very difficult to overcome the negative feelings many employees develop toward each other. Prevention is the best approach.

However, in the event that a workgroup has become split, it is sometimes possible to provide education or training to the group in the dynamics of splitting, so that they can soften their hostility and all-or-nothing thinking about each other. If there is an obvious high-conflict person (HCP) in the midst of the workgroup, such a group training may teach the HCP how to reduce their high-conflict behavior, or he or she may decide to simply leave the organization spontaneously, or it may become clear to the organization’s leadership that the HCP is unable to learn better group skills and that steps are necessary to remove the person – especially because of the intensely negative effect they have on the organization as a whole.


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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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