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Why Avoiding Conflict Prolongs It

Do you like conflict?  Most people don’t. But sometimes, trying to keep the peace simply prolongs the problem.

I was working with a leadership team who had problems with the IT department. They were reluctant to openly express their frustrations to the IT leader (their peer) because he was a strong personality who was close to the big boss.  Reluctant to risk an uncomfortable conversation, the rest of the team avoided discussing the issues openly, grumbling and complaining on the sidelines instead.

The issues problems continued while frustration grew.  By attempting to keep the peace, the leadership team fell into three dangerous (and common) conflict avoider traps:

  1. False assumptions about intent

When the IT leader said, ”this is our priority.” the team made all kinds of assumptions.  Their story was: He doesn’t care about the rest of the business.  He’s trying to build a fiefdom.” But that was their story; in truth they didn’t know why he had chosen those priorities.

It’s like the classic orange conflict.  Two people fighting over an orange who both want the whole thing.  Yet when asked why they want it one replies, “I need all the juice to make my cake.”  The other replies, “I need all the zest from the peel to make my frosting.”

What seems to be a conflict; might not be. When I coached the leadership team to ask questions like, “Tell us more about how this will play out?”  The IT Leader showed surprising understanding about operations, but he didn’t have much information about the client market.  His priorities weren’t wrong, they were simply based on what he thought would be best.  With greater shared understanding the team could make better decisions.

  1. Mistaking enthusiasm for attachment

The IT leader was confident and articulate.  But because he was clear in his priorities, the team assumed he was inflexible.  Frankly, I encounter this problem a lot in my own life.  I get excited about things quickly.  I start talking a mile a minute; I come up with a plan, set goals and am ready to move fast.  It can be overpowering for some people. They often assume because I’m so excited about my ideas, I’m unwilling to consider anything different.

But confronting a dominant personality doesn’t have to be combative.  I taught the team how to keep things neutral and ask questions.  Instead of saying, “This won’t work.” They asked, “Tell me about this part, I don’t understand.”  As it turned out, the IT leader was attached to some things, but on several other elements, he was really open to new ideas.

  1. Lack of confidence

One of the big reasons people avoid conflict is because they doubt their own ability to guide a conversation. They assume, it’s going to be an argument and I’ll lose.  The thought process goes something like this, he wants this, I want that, there’s no way to resolve it, so I’ll just avoid.

But disagreements don’t mean death; they’re just disagreements.  Over time, the leadership team was able to see, healthy disagreement is crucial for innovation.  As they became more confident in the ability to work through issues, they addressed them sooner and worked through them more quickly.

Avoiding conflict only keeps you trapped in it.  When you address issues early without angst or malice, you save yourself a lot of grief.