Clear Review has joined Advanced - Discover our full suite of powerful and innovative people management solutions

Find out more
Back to blog

Addressing Conflict Avoidance in the Workplace

Furious boss scolding young frustrated interns.

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

At first, con­flict avoid­ance might sound like a good thing. After all, so many of us nat­u­ral­ly avoid con­flict in one way or anoth­er — but there is a dif­fer­ence between cre­at­ing a healthy envi­ron­ment where­ con­flict is rare and avoid­ing con­flict when it presents itself. The for­mer is a wise human resources 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 good­will in the world, but unfor­tu­nate­ly, this makes them just as respon­si­ble as aggres­sive col­leagues when it comes to cre­at­ing a neg­a­tive work­ing envi­ron­ment. Con­flict is a part of every work­place — and that’s okay. It’s when we avoid con­flict that prob­lems arise. We aren’t able to address con­cerns that need address­ing, deci­sion mak­ing is delayed and man­agers are unable to improve exist­ing process­es in a healthy manner.

How Our Brains Han­dle Con­flict (the Sci­ence of Con­flict Avoidance)

You might have heard that human beings are innate­ly social crea­tures — and this is the truth. Our desire to be accept­ed, to be part of the tribe” is hard­wired into us and it influ­ences so many of our day-to-day decisions.

We want to belong. We fear being ostracised — which leads to a fear of con­flict. Though on a prac­ti­cal lev­el, we might under­stand that con­flict avoid­ance is unhealthy and can esca­late, our nat­ur­al ten­den­cy is to take the eas­i­er road and to let things slide — mak­ing us nat­u­ral­ly con­flict avoidant. When we encounter con­flict, the ani­mal­is­tic instincts in our lim­bic sys­tem kicks into gear, under­min­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion and team­work. Even man­agers are guilty of this behav­iour — they often put off get­ting involved in con­flict between team mem­bers. But con­flict man­age­ment is an impor­tant lead­er­ship trait for the mod­ern man­ag­er and one we will be dis­cussing shortly.

Why Con­flict Avoid­ance Is Harm­ful to Business

The Thomas Kil­mann grid looks upon con­flict avoid­ance as a lose-lose propo­si­tion, giv­en that it does­n’t serve to address the issue at hand. After all, if prob­lems are nev­er raised, how can our busi­ness­es ever improve? 

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 and inter­per­son­al con­flict is a per­for­mance man­age­ment issue that all HR execs should address.

The Main Exam­ples of Con­flict Avoid­ance in the Workplace

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 con­flict res­o­lu­tion — will be a huge ben­e­fit to any com­pa­ny.

To do this, we must first under­stand the dif­fer­ent forms that con­flict avoid­ance takes. Below, we’ll explore the three main man­i­fes­ta­tions of con­flict avoid­ance in the workplace.

1. Sim­ply Ignor­ing the Issue at Hand

A com­mon form of con­flict avoid­ance is to 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, so refrain­ing from hon­est dis­cus­sion does noth­ing for the com­pa­ny in terms of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty 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 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 con­tributed. The employ­ee may be 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 Address Con­flict Avoid­ance and Embrace Con­flict in Your Organisation

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

Take the fol­low­ing steps to begin to resolve con­flict and elim­i­nate con­flict avoid­ance in your organisation.

1) Imple­ment Fre­quent Man­ag­er Check-Ins Reg­u­lar, authen­tic con­ver­sa­tion can improve many aspects of work life. Impor­tant­ly, it can also help in terms of con­flict res­o­lu­tion. Man­agers should be encour­aged to meet fre­quent­ly with their employ­ees, so staff get to know their lead­ers, devel­op famil­iar­i­ty and become more com­fort­able hav­ing dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions. Imple­men­ta­tion of reg­u­lar check-ins and coach­ing con­ver­sa­tions will help to cre­ate a cul­ture of direct, flu­id com­mu­ni­ca­tion while demon­strat­ing to every­one involved that their opin­ion is heard, respect­ed and valued.

2) Give Your Employ­ees Access to Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Tools — Tech­nol­o­gy has changed the way we com­mu­ni­cate in the work­place. It is also help­ing give voice to cer­tain employ­ees who might not feel com­fort­able speak­ing up in per­son. With team com­mu­ni­ca­tion soft­ware such as Slack, employ­ees can give them­selves time to calm­ly and ratio­nal­ly frame an argu­ment or an idea so that it comes off as con­struc­tive, not con­fronta­tion­al. This can help to build an open envi­ron­ment where con­trary opin­ions are explored and shared.

3) Show Your Employ­ees It Is Healthy to Debate and Dis­agree — It can take time to change com­pa­ny cul­ture, but it’s worth it in the long run. Help your employ­ees reframe con­flict as some­thing con­struc­tive. We don’t want con­flict to be aggres­sive or unnec­es­sar­i­ly con­fronta­tion­al, but debate and dis­agree­ment can be use­ful and ben­e­fi­cial for busi­ness. It can help if you demon­strate to your employ­ees that man­age­ment val­ue vari­ance of opin­ion. Employ­ees should feel on sol­id ground and be secure in the knowl­edge that if they stand up against an idea or process, they won’t have to wor­ry about their job.

Ulti­mate­ly, 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 mem­bers. 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.

Find out how Clear Review can help

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

Book a free demo of Clear Review

Relat­ed articles

The Dangers of Workplace Stress — and How to Deal With It
What troubles the minds of your employees can trouble your organisation as a whole. Employees are the most important asset of any modern company. Their input, effort and hard work keeps processes running smoothly and gives your company its competitive edge. As such, HR executives must keep track of…
Read article
How to Give Corrective Feedback through Coaching Conversations
Giving feedback should be an integral part of a manager’s duties. Indeed, research shows that effective feedback is a major driver of leadership effectiveness and performance.
Read article