Do you avoid conflict? If you do, you're not alone. Conflict avoidance is one of the most common characteristics of corporate cultures. At the same time it is one of the most pernicious and dangerous sources of unintentional complexity in organizational life.
The tendency to avoid conflict -- albeit inconvenient -- is very human. Most people want to be liked and unconsciously fear that arguments, disagreements, or negative messages will create tension with people they interact with on a day-to-day basis. Compounded with the environmental pressure to respect authority and the organizational stress on teamwork, this creates a great deal of anxiety around stirring up trouble.
Given these psychological and cultural forces, it's no wonder that so many managers -- from CEOs to shift supervisors -- avoid conflict. Unfortunately this avoidance creates disconnects between business units, unnecessary revisions in project plans, and lower standards of performance -- all of which complicate organizational life.
Not long ago I worked with a well-known company that was struggling to grow in a difficult market. In talking with the executive team it was clear that each of the product divisions had put a lot of time into their growth plans -- but they had spent little time aligning the plans with each other. As a result, R&D was uncertain about how to prioritize its projects, and centralized marketing dollars were spread around like peanut butter. There also were too many IT projects, most of which were under-resourced, and the sales force lacked focus. When I asked why the plans had not been better integrated, the excuse was that separate functions were expected to work it out amongst themselves. But in these "nice" cultures where people don't regularly ask the tough questions, "working it out" never happens.
This kind of conflict avoidance is not only prevalent in large-scale strategic discussions, but in day-to-day office interactions. We've all made decisions in meetings only to be undone later when a silent dissenter is found to disagree. And how many times have we heard about an employee jarred by a poor performance rating, simply because her boss had never given her honest feedback? One such conflict-avoiding company even asks project teams to run stakeholder "acceptance analyses" throughout the course of a project, in the hope that eventually everyone will get on board and the senior manager won't have to directly tell anyone to cooperate.
There is no easy formula for learning how to engage more effectively in constructive conflict. But here are three suggestions that may help you move in that direction:
1. Reflect. Look at yourself in the mirror and give yourself an honest appraisal of your readiness to challenge, give bad news, or otherwise create a degree of conflict. Can you think of situations where you should have spoken up but didn't, or where you tempered your words too much? Are there any particular types of conflict you avoid more than others, such as pushing back on authority?
2. Get feedback. Talk to friends, family, or colleagues. What is their perception of your willingness to engage in conflict, and your ability to do it constructively? Ask them about specific situations or patterns that they might see but are not obvious to you.
3. Correct the problem -- gradually. Do some experimenting, particularly in the areas that are habitually difficult for you. Try pushing back on a request from your boss that doesn't make sense. Speak up in a project meeting when you don't agree. Give someone feedback that you've been withholding. No matter what you do, start the conversation by saying that you are trying to get better at dealing with conflict situations, and that you hope this comes across constructively. This way, you will position yourself as speaking honestly and trying to learn -- and not just picking a fight. Hopefully this will reduce your anxiety (and that of your audience), which will allow both of you to make the conflict more constructive. Click here to read the full article.