The Crisis of Conflict Avoidance


Twice recently I’ve run into situations where I’ve had conversations with people where they relayed to me how they weren’t comfortable having open discussions with others at work. One person was in a situation where she was miserable at work, but was choosing not to have the tough conversation with her boss that could lead to improvements. When I asked her why, she shared with me a list of assumptions she was making:
  • She thought that it didn’t matter if she talked to her boss because she didn’t think anything could be done.
  • Because her issue is primarily with the behavior of a co-worker, she felt that bringing up her concerns would come across as petty.
  • She felt like it was an issue that she should probably be able to resolve on her own (even though she’d been failing to deal with it for 2 years)
  • She thought that raising these complaints my jeopardize her job
The issues this woman were experiencing weren’t easy ones to resolve. But, they could be resolved with the help of her management. However, because her management weren’t aware of the extent of the issue, they weren’t taking any action to resolve it. By choosing silence, she had become part of the problem. Her solution: go look for another job. The irony of the situation was that her primary fear in bringing the issues up to her boss was that it might impact her job security (although she had not evidence to support that fear), so instead of taking that risk, she was just going to find a new job. It seems crazy, but I think it happens a lot.
My experience tells me that this issue is plaguing our businesses and workplaces. People are, for one reason or another, choosing silence and misery over courage and change. It is another reminder for me of how fearful human nature is of change. It also reminds me of how harmful it can be to people when you have a workplace that punishes those who have the courage to speak up.
As organizations talk about talent management, they often find themselves focused on systems and ratings, assessments and succession plans. But, the best designed system in the world cannot effectively set talent free in the absence of open, authentic conversations that will regularly dip into uncomfortable areas of conflict.
Just last week, I sat in a room with several HR leaders from various larger employers in the area to discuss developing leadership. As further evidence of this lack of open conversation, this group identified conflict management skills as the single biggest gap amongst their future leaders. Even more concerning was that the discussion in this group revealed that it wasn’t just these leaders who were conflict incapable (or worse, avoidant), but that it was really the culture that reinforced unproductive harmony over productive conflict.
This is a crisis. So, I pose to you these two questions:
  1. Does your experience align with mine on this issue?
  2. What must we do to solve this problem?
I look forward to your thoughts.

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