At some point, workplace confrontations are unavoidable. Somebody will try and do something or want to do something that clashes with something else that someone else is trying to do. On the surface, managers and HR may be satisfied that there are no reports of interpersonal conflict between workers. However, this could indicate that a toxic culture of conflict avoidance is festering in the workplace, and it’s essential to adopt meaningful ways to resolve conflict.

Understanding the psychology that drives conflict avoidance

There is a difference between creating a friendly environment where conflict is rare and avoiding any conflict that needs proper resolution. While the former is a wise move that boosts employee morale, the latter is a mistake that can come at a high price for your organisation. It can be draining to work in an environment where conflict is common, but it’s equally toxic to pretend that differences and difficulties don’t exist.

Most of us have been conditioned to think that conflict is bad and that we should appear optimistic, easygoing, and positive at all times. The situation may indicate artificial harmony, but in reality, it’s a state of denial that undermines trust among employees. We tend to avoid conflict most of the time as we don’t like to be ostracised or disliked by our colleagues or subordinates.

Human beings are socially inclined to look for acceptance and approval from others. When a conflict brews, our limbic and nervous systems respond with an instinctive fightor-flight reaction. Out of these, we tend to lean towards the flight mode naturally. Conflict avoidance, at its core, is a way to minimise fear of consequences in the event of a disagreement.

However, avoiding conflict leads to escalation of differences due to the lack of resolution. As a leader, your ability to resolve conflict can help your team members collaborate better, think innovatively, and feel psychologically safe to share ideas and views.

Conflict avoidance and toxic work culture

Many employees worry that voicing a disagreement or divergent point of view can work against a promotion or get them labelled as opinionated or difficult. If left unchecked, employees may feel nervous about being shot down and refrain from sharing creative or different ideas that fuel innovation. Many leaders avoid managing conflicts in the hope that the employees will resolve the issues on their own. However, the avoidance tactic may result in bullying, resentment, lack of communication, detachment (employees focusing on their individual needs rather than the goals of the business), absenteeism, and employee turnover.

If you notice a rise in internal applications for other posts, it could indicate an unresolved conflict with the supervisor. Avoiding difficult conversations can cause a loss of valuable talent in your organisations. Ineffective conflict resolution techniques can also fuel conflict avoidance. Belittling an employee’s emotions, blaming them for reporting harassment, or playing favourites can create an undercurrent of toxicity that interferes with productivity and teamwork.

Poor communication, lack of adequate feedback and lack of consequences for low accountability can result in unfair workloads and dissatisfaction. In general, conflictavoidance strategies can take three approaches:

  • Passivity:
    The leader does nothing and hopes that the problem will disappear on its own.
  • Excessive compliance:
    The leader goes overboard in promoting harmony instead of reinforcing trust by encouraging honest sharing of views.
  • Excessive control:
    The leader keeps strict control over any signs of conflict and undermines honesty in the process. They use dominance and an authoritarian approach to discourage transparent exchanges.

Leaders need to understand that if problems are never raised, the business will never improve. Ignoring core issues, side-stepping potentially complex interactions, or completely withdrawing from the conflict situation are diversionary tactics that leave problems unresolved and damage the company in terms of growth and productivity. 

How to prevent conflict avoidance

Employees must be confident to share their views without the fear of being placed in the firing line. The solution is to encourage honest, open, and frank exchange of ideas. Leaders can step in and adopt these strategies to reduce conflict avoidance:

  • Conduct one-on-one and group conversations so that employees develop familiarity and feel comfortable having difficult conversations if need be.
  • Use technology to allow employees to structure their views and communicate through other means if they are not comfortable with a face-to-face interaction.
  • Demonstrate that you value variances of opinion.

While conflict should not be unnecessarily aggressive, emotional, or confrontational, it’s important to create a culture where debate and disagreement are seen as stepping stones to progress.

Our experienced consultants at ESN bring invaluable understanding and provide dynamic and innovative solutions to discourage disharmony. Regardless of the cause, whether it be conflicting goals, needs, or personality clashes, we can help resolve problems with the help of competent mediators and psychologists.

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