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How Conflict Avoidance Destroys Work Culture

Furious boss scolding young frustrated interns.

Con­flict is a per­for­mance man­age­ment issue that needs to be addressed, not ignored

To some, con­flict avoid­ance might sound like a good thing. So many of us nat­u­ral­ly avoid con­flict in one way or anoth­er, but there is a dif­fer­ence between cre­at­ing a healthy envi­ron­ment where­in con­flict is rare, and avoid­ing con­flict when it presents itself. The for­mer is a wise HR move; the lat­ter is a mis­take that comes at a high price for companies.

Many employ­ees want to be seen as pleas­ant and easy­go­ing, so much so that they do any­thing to avoid a fight. They do this with all the good will in the world, but unfor­tu­nate­ly, these employ­ees can be just as respon­si­ble as aggres­sive col­leagues when it comes to cre­at­ing a neg­a­tive work­ing envi­ron­ment. When we avoid con­flict, we aren’t able to address con­cerns that need address­ing, work com­fort­ably in our envi­ron­ment, or improve exist­ing process­es in a healthy manner.

The neg­a­tive side-effects of con­flict avoid­ance are often high turnover, a dys­func­tion­al work­ing envi­ron­ment, strained com­mu­ni­ca­tion, a loss of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and impaired team­work. Your com­pa­ny rep­u­ta­tion will also suf­fer, mak­ing it all the more dif­fi­cult to recruit top per­form­ers in the future. For these rea­sons, con­flict avoid­ance is a per­for­mance man­age­ment issue that all HR execs should address.

Organ­i­sa­tions will not be able to suc­ceed in the long term with­out address­ing con­flict head-on. The abil­i­ty to recog­nise con­flict — and to make steps towards resolv­ing it — will be a huge ben­e­fit to any com­pa­ny. To do this, we must first under­stand the dif­fer­ent forms that con­flict avoid­ance takes.

1. Sim­ply ignor­ing the issue at hand

A com­mon form of con­flict avoid­ance is to sim­ply deny there is an issue at all. As an exam­ple, two col­leagues might dis­agree regard­ing an approach to a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem. Both feel pas­sion­ate­ly about their solu­tion and yet, rather than insist­ing they explore the pros and cons of each avenue, one par­ty sim­ply backs down and refus­es to assert them­selves. They might have a legit­i­mate argu­ment and refrain­ing from hon­est dis­cus­sion does noth­ing for the com­pa­ny and progress.

Anoth­er exam­ple might be if one employ­ee feels they are the vic­tim of work­place bul­ly­ing, but doesn’t take the ini­tia­tive to dis­cuss it with their man­ag­er or HR. They might insist they are fine and there is no prob­lem, but as the root cause isn’t being addressed, they will ulti­mate­ly suf­fer from a loss of morale and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty.

2. A change of conversation

Anoth­er form of con­flict avoid­ance is side-step­ping. This is a diver­sion­ary tac­tic and a sure­fire way of ensur­ing no issues ever get resolved, as when­ev­er a par­tic­u­lar issue is brought up, the employ­ee in ques­tion changes the con­ver­sa­tion or rais­es oth­er, unre­lat­ed issues.

For exam­ple, dur­ing a one-on-one per­for­mance dis­cus­sion, a man­ag­er might ask an employ­ee about their goal progress and why they haven’t been able to hit their tar­gets for a par­tic­u­lar objec­tive. In response, the employ­ee might derail the con­ver­sa­tion to dis­cuss a com­plete­ly unre­lat­ed mat­ter, or raise tan­gen­tial issues that don’t progress the conversation.

3. Com­plete with­draw­al from the situation

This is a com­mon form of con­flict avoid­ance, par­tic­u­lar­ly for intro­verts. When dif­fi­cult or adver­sar­i­al con­ver­sa­tions present them­selves, the employ­ee might appear to close down. Peo­ple who use this cop­ing strat­e­gy often feel their approach is ben­e­fi­cial, as they aren’t being out­ward­ly aggres­sive. How­ev­er, a silent approach can be just as dam­ag­ing in the long run, as they are fail­ing to address the issue at hand.

This approach of com­plete dis­en­gage­ment means noth­ing of val­ue is being con­tributed. They are like­ly wait­ing for the storm to pass, but in all like­li­hood, if a par­tic­u­lar top­ic is at all anx­i­ety-pro­vok­ing, they won’t be inclined to vis­it it lat­er, even when emo­tions have died down.

How to avoid con­flict avoid­ance in your organisation

It is clear that from a per­for­mance man­age­ment point of view, con­flict needs to be addressed. Employ­ees need to feel val­ued and lis­tened to, and com­pa­nies must han­dle con­flict in a struc­tured way. This needs to hap­pen through open, hon­est com­mu­ni­ca­tion and a frank exchange of ideas. Employ­ees should be able to voice their opin­ions and con­cerns, with­out fear of being placed in the fir­ing line. This is where HR can step in. The HR depart­ment needs to offer ser­vices to help resolve press­ing issues in a calm, relaxed space.

In the long run, com­pa­nies should work towards min­imis­ing con­flict through clar­i­ty and trans­paren­cy. Organ­i­sa­tions should devel­op clear com­pa­ny objec­tives and artic­u­late the company’s vision to their team. This will help to get employ­ees unit­ed, engaged and dri­ven to accom­plish it. When employ­ees have a firm idea of what they are meant to do and the direc­tion they are head­ing in, con­flict becomes less ubiq­ui­tous, as every­one is work­ing towards the same goal.

For this rea­son, HR should imple­ment reg­u­lar employ­ee man­ag­er check-ins, where both par­ties can set expec­ta­tions, dis­cuss SMART objec­tives and raise any areas of con­cern. This will help to cre­ate a cul­ture of direct, flu­id com­mu­ni­ca­tion, while demon­strat­ing to every­one involved that their opin­ion is respect­ed and valued.

Book a per­son­al demo of Clear Review, a mod­ern per­for­mance man­age­ment soft­ware sys­tem, to boost your company’s effi­cien­cy, employ­ee com­mu­ni­ca­tion and productivity.