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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 Forms 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.

4) 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.

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