A C-suite Executive sees herself as a democratic leader and doesn’t like to give direction to her Director Team. She says she wants to let them make their own decisions. This works well for her when they are getting along, but when they are having trouble collaborating, her hands-off approach leaves a vacuum that turns into a power struggle. After several months of this, all of the directors are going their own way and there is no common vision. Through coaching, we understand that her hands-off approach is actually woven through with conflict avoidance. She has strong people pleasing instincts, so she doesn’t hold people accountable or set boundaries, at the expense of team wellbeing and organizational strategy.
Conflict avoidance is one of the most common leadership difficulties I experience with clients. While avoiding can be a good strategy in some situations, when used too often or without discernment, it can cause big problems.
Conflict is unavoidable. It is a natural part of human interaction. When we try to avoid it, we usually make it worse. The best thing you can do to improve your team dynamic is develop your own capacity to engage in conflict, and support others to do the same.
The previous story is just one dynamic that I see in workplaces that have an issue with conflict avoidance.
Here are some other examples of conflict avoidance in the workplace
Sometimes avoidance comes from a cultural norm of niceness that is very common in white North American workplaces.
A charitable organization has kindness and care as one of their main values. This translates into client services, and also team interactions. This culture of niceness feels great when everyone is happy, but as soon as someone tries to give constructive feedback or raise a concern, the person discovers that there is not really space for disagreement. The emphasis on niceness not only creates groupthink, but also makes people with different perspectives feel silenced, isolated and unwelcome. This comes to a head when the organization – which has mostly white staff – wants to increase staff diversity and creates a new position of Manager of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. They hire a woman of colour to fill the role. She finds it impossible to do her job which is dependent on her being able to raise problems that she sees in the organization, and quits in frustration after three months.
Other times people are too busy to deal with conflict and just hope it will go away on its own.
Two employees who have very different personalities and work styles are on the same team in a fast-paced mid-size company. They are constantly clashing with each other and both go individually to their manager to ask for support. He is very busy with an unmanageable workload, and sees their personality differences as a minor issue. Feeling annoyed, he tells them to try to figure it out themselves. They both realize there isn’t going to be much help from him, so they mostly try to ignore each other. The manager doesn’t hear about it again, and he thinks they have figured it out. Over time they both become increasingly annoyed by each other. Eventually they have to work on a stressful project, and the tensions between them escalate to the point that they start yelling insults at each other in a meeting. One of the employees goes to HR and files a bullying complaint against the other employee.
But in some contexts, avoidance is the safest strategy in a toxic workplace environment.
A company with around 500 employees is known to have a highly competitive and hierarchical culture. The people who get noticed for promotion tend to be connected to the people in Senior Management and good at networking. To be recognized as a star employee, people have to work overtime and demonstrate their loyalty to the company. The VP of Operations is known to brag that he missed every one of his kids’ birthdays because he was so committed to the work. Staff very rarely raise issues because people are aware that when people have complained in the past about the workplace culture, they usually aren’t around for much longer. The company has had many formal employee complaints, and has invested in a large legal department to deal with them.
And our past experiences, especially the traumatic ones, can also lead us to avoid conflict.
An employee has recently been transferred from another department. The transfer happened to resolve a massive conflict in the other department that led to multiple complaints and a formal investigation. The employee was involved in the conflict and one of the complainants in the investigation. She was really traumatized by the experience, and her former manager decided to have her transferred because she was having trouble feeling safe on her previous team. While she is settling in OK on her new team, she is still extremely nervous about any signs of potential conflict, and tends to disengage as soon as there is even a simple disagreement on her new team. She is very invested in everyone getting along.
Similarly, a whole workplace can be conflict avoidant because of past traumatic experiences with conflict.
It’s been two years since this government department went through the trauma of a major harassment investigation. The entire team spent the time of the investigation scared to talk to each other and worried about their jobs. They felt like they had to walk on eggshells in the office. At the end of the investigation, several people, including a senior manager, were fired, and several others found new jobs. The people who remained were unsure how to go back to working well as a team. Two years later, people mostly feel better, but any time a potential conflict arises, people stop talking, disengage, and hope it will go away. While relationships feel better, people don’t have any confidence that they would survive another crisis.
As you can see, there are many personal and workplace culture reasons why people avoid conflict in the workplace.
Sometimes avoidance is a great strategy
To be clear, avoidance is not always bad.
Any response to conflict can be helpful in some situations and unhelpful when it is used too much or in situations that would benefit from something else.
In some situations, conflict avoidance might be the best response, at least in the short term.
So for example, when you don’t have the time to give the conflict the attention it needs in the moment, or when you need time to find some perspective, avoidance can be a great way to create more time and space. Generally in this situation, it is a good idea to let other people know that you will come back to it, and give an estimate of when that might be possible. Other times, when you don’t really care about the relationship that is impacted by the conflict, avoidance can be a great way to not escalate things unnecessarily or expend energy on something you don’t care that much about.
Ideally avoidance is a strategy, not a way of being. Sometimes avoidance is helpful and sometimes it’s better to pick a different strategy. This is especially important in a workplace and when in leadership, because the relationships are too important to just ignore the conflict.
If you think avoidance is an issue in your life or workplace, start by understanding why people are avoiding conflict.
What if you’re the one who is avoiding?
If you’re the one who is avoiding a conflict that it would be better to engage in, try to understand why. There is probably a good reason for your reaction. Maybe you have had bad experiences in the past and you are trying to protect yourself from more. Or it’s possible that you learned from a young age in your family or your culture that conflict is bad or dangerous. There might also be something in your workplace that is leading you to feel unsafe to engage.
These are all very good reasons, and at the same time, sometimes they are not helping. If you are avoiding but you have the sense it would be better to find a different response, here are some questions that might help you get some perspective:
- When has avoiding conflict helped you? When has it not helped you?
- Where did you learn conflict avoidance as a strategy? Was it family? School or another institution? A former workplace? Did you learn it from past experiences or trial and error?
- What are your cultural and social norms around conflict, professionalism, and emotional expression? How do these norms relate or not to conflict avoidance?
- What are your values about leadership? How do those values affect your conflict style?
- How might you be bringing past experiences – especially stressful or negative ones – with you into your present situation?
- Is there a current situation that feels too risky to engage in? Is there something you could do or ask for to make it feel safe enough to engage? If not, what do you think will be the outcome of not engaging?
- If you are in a leadership role, what might be the impact on people who have less authority than you if you continue avoiding?
These can be challenging questions to reflect on. If you are feeling stuck, overwhelmed, or activated by these questions, it might be helpful to reach out for conflict coaching or other support.
What if your organizational culture is avoidant?
If you find yourself avoiding conflict and aren’t sure why, it’s also possible that it’s not about you. Maybe your workplace culture is conflict avoidant, and you are following the trend.
As a leader, this is a more complex problem to solve, and you will want to understand why the conflict avoidance is happening. You need to assess the root causes. Here are some questions to contemplate:
- What are the workplace culture norms around conflict? Is there an overemphasis on politeness and professionalism?
- What happens when people raise issues? Are they heard and appreciated or silenced and discouraged?
- Do people have the skills to give their honest opinions and feedback effectively, or is there a general lack of comfort with conflict?
- How are people spending their time? Are people focused on tasks and deliverables at the expense of relationships, connection and trust?
- Does the culture value diversity of ideas and experience? Who might feel like their perspective isn’t welcome?
- Is there a sense of psychological safety and that it’s safe to take risks, or do people experience the workplace as toxic or discriminatory?
- What might be getting in the way of people feeling safe and trusting?
- Are there any past workplace crises that have not been fully healed? Are people scared it might happen again?
- How are people experiencing power in the workplace? Do people feel a sense agency?
- What else might be happening in the workplace that you aren’t seeing that might be feeding a culture of conflict avoidance?
Do some digging if you want to really understand what is under the surface of the avoidance. There are a range of ways to do this. Sometimes you might be able to find the necessary information by having some informal conversations with staff, or reviewing past data such as employee engagement surveys, exit interviews, HR complaints, or other feedback mechanisms. Other times, particularly in larger organizations or more complex culture issues, you might need a formal assessment process that uses surveys, interviews, and other methods to get under the surface of the avoidance.
Once you have the information about why there’s a culture of conflict avoidance, then you can take action to shift the dynamic. With time and commitment, you can create a more courageous workplace where people engage directly with problems, learn from each other’s perspectives, and transform tensions before they escalate.
Are you wanting to shift a pattern of conflict avoidance in your workplace? Check out our upcoming learning opportunities for leaders: Building Emotional Agility and Generative Conflict: Leadership Skills for Healthy Workplaces to help you create an environment of honest communication. You can also sign up for the Big Waves mailing list for special promotions and to be the first to know about the upcoming launch of an at-your-own-pace conflict skills training!