In aeronautical parlance, "pitch downward divergent" refers to how a plane can get into real trouble if its angle with respect to the horizon is pointing downward too far. Essentially, it loses lift and the aircraft starts dropping like a stone. While that's a sure fire way to gain speed, it's accomplished at the risk of dying if you are not able to pull out of the dive fast enough.
I've used that as the title for today's blog because there's an apt analogy in group dynamics: once interpersonal dynamics start heading south, they're susceptible to getting locked into a negative feedback loop that reinforces the downward spiral.
In short, the more that a group encounters interpersonal turbulence among members that doesn't get resolved, the more likely it is that future exchanges will land poorly. Current events are seen through the lens of past hurts hurts (resulting in questioning good intent), people start expecting a higher percentage of encounters to go poorly (thereby measurably increasing the likelihood that they will go poorly), and there's increased brittleness in how problem-solving unfolds (as people start associating flexibility with being taken advantage of). Yuck.
When there's unresolved interpersonal tension in a group it impacts the group negatively in a number of ways:
1. It distorts exchanges between the protagonists
Perhaps the most obvious way in which unresolved tensions are expensive is that the people directly involved are less likely to enjoy working together—either as members of the same team, or as members of the same group. While this may not be so bad in a group of 60, where the impact is diluted over a large number, it can be excruciating in a small group (or committee) where the two people are expected to be in regular contact and communication.
This greatly complicates the task of figuring out a good response to the issue in which the tensions first emerged, because trust between the players has been damaged. Grace has been diminished and even innocent statements or actions are more likely to be misconstrued.
2. When upset goes unaddressed, if changes the lens through which the players see future events
Where once there was openness and open-mindedness, there may now be caution and wariness. When in the grip of unresolved tension, a person will tend to feel isolated and uncared for. They will be quicker to assign bad intent to future exchanges. Misunderstandings that would have been easily corrected in the past, are now a constant risk. It can be exhausting.
Worse, players with lingering hurts will be less likely to even reveal that they have placed a bad spin on current events—because they do not expect a good outcome from revealing hurts (what good would it do?). Without knowledge that something has landed amiss it is nearly impossible to clear it up.
3. It can distract the group to the extent that it's aware of the ongoing tension
If two parties are known to be at odds with one another, others in the group will become sensitized to the dynamic and on guard for its reemergence. Especially if the group as a whole does not have a robust track record when it comes to working conflict constructively, there will be a tendency for group members to be watching for the needle going into the red instead of tracking the conversation. In fact, if the topic seems likely to be subject to the gravitational pull of the unresolved tension (perhaps because it's so dear to the heart of one of the protagonists), the topic may be avoided all together as too risky.
4. Prospective members pick up on the unresolved tension, even if they don't know where it's coming from
You want new members to be sensitive to group energy, yet the group is at risk of inadvertently selecting against this trait if it allows unresolved tensions to persist (the message being that the group is either oblivious to the tensions or ineffective in responding to them). Thus, the group presents as less attractive. Of course, that may not be a problem if the prospective member is clueless about group energy, but who wants clueless new members?
The good news is that even if the group stumbles in trying to engage with conflict, a good faith effort is likely to be attractive to prospectives for whom this quality in the group matters. That is, you'll get partial credit for trying (as opposed to no credit for ducking).
While there's no guarantee that engaging with interpersonal conflict will result in success, isn't it better to go down attempting to work effectively with whatever is in the room—the full range of human expressions—than to suffer the consequences of being too timid to try?