Let’s face it. Some amount of conflict is part of every workplace. In Part One of this three-part blog series on difficult conversations I wrote about how, despite so much effort by companies to facilitate communication and openness in the workplace, important yet difficult conversations still are not taking place with the frequency that they should. Most people will do almost anything to avoid awkward or difficult conversations at work; some will even go so far as to quit their job to avoid addressing awkward issues with subordinates, colleagues, or the boss.
It seems that conflict avoidance is a common but highly ineffective strategy. While conflict can often be managed quickly by addressing it head-on, avoiding conflict usually sees it escalate as a result. Sometimes, this is linked to boundary violations as described here and here in previous blog posts.
According to The Conflict Report, nine out of ten employees have experienced a workplace conflict that escalated. When that happens the negative feelings and damaged relationships don’t simply vanish overnight. There’s a much higher likelihood of negative outcomes the longer a situation goes unresolved. The longer it goes unresolved, the deeper the feelings and resentment can run, and the longer it can take for relationships to recover.
However, when managed correctly, difficult conversations can lead to overall positive outcomes for all involved. The Conflict Report found that over three-quarters of employees surveyed identified a good end result from conflict. Conflicts that are managed through an effective resolution process can actually strengthen your team, leading to greater trust and better decision-making.
Conflict and Leadership
After reading Part One of this blog, a reader commented on their agreement about how organizations risk losing great talent due to an avoidance of difficult conversations. This reader also pointed out that “there is also a reputation aspect that comes into play as a leader.”
That reader is exactly right!
In high-functioning teams, conflict isn’t avoided, instead, it is encouraged through a constructive process in the spirit of bringing out the best in everyone and creating the best possible work product/service. A team needs constructive conflict to be at its best. Failing to encourage and facilitate it, or actively avoiding it, is certainly a failure in leadership.
What good are brainstorming sessions if people just agree on everything, all the time? Or, if people are reluctant to challenge company protocol when they see a better way of doing things because “difficult” conversations are avoided? Great leadership actually encourages and embraces disagreements that respectfully and productively challenge accepted processes and viewpoints.
Too often, things can get wrapped up too quickly and superficially. Incredible ideas and value are left on the table, never discussed, because people fear disagreement and upsetting others. These missed opportunities happen because the people involved (including the leaders) don’t see a clear way to bring up an issue and resolve it peacefully.
But just because there’s a disagreement doesn’t mean there will be an argument. Just because there’s conflict doesn’t mean it has to be mean or ugly.
If we can agree that conflict is part of every workplace, I think we can also agree that leaders are largely responsible for managing conflict in a workplace. And if a leader is avoiding conflict, then they’re also avoiding other important things, like making important decisions!
If you’re avoiding making decisions, how is that affecting your team? If you can’t move forward on something, is that preventing your team from moving forward as well? These avoidant behaviours may be setting you up for even more — much larger — issues down the road.
If you as a leader don’t get the information you need because your team is afraid to bring up contentious issues, how can you deal with them? Many business failures can be linked back to instances of critical information that went unaddressed because somebody was afraid to bring it up and discuss it. This is also linked to a lack of trust, psychological safety, inclusion, and belonging.
At some point you will have to deal with it—whether it’s an uncomfortable but resolvable conversation now, or becomes a larger issue down the road—because as a leader, you certainly don’t want to earn a reputation as someone who constantly avoids conflict, can’t make decisions, and doesn’t bring out the best in others.
Next time, in Part 3 of this blog, I’ll outline some ways to approach difficult conversations so that these challenging situations can result in more positive experiences and outcomes for employees, leaders, and their organizations.
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