Conflict Avoidance - And Why You Shouldn't Avoid It

In my work as a management consultant, strategist, and coach I meet with leaders in all types of organizations. Two of the issues they mention most both concern accountability. One issue is that people don't follow through with what they promised to do. The second issue is that leaders and managers don't know how to deal with the first issue.

This is somewhat less common in traditional hierarchical organizations because their command-and-control environments are designed for the buck to stop somewhere. Someone has to crack down on people who are not accountable to goals or agreements.

But as today's workplaces evolve and grow there are fewer managers, more collaborative teams, more freelancers who are technically independent, and more partnerships with outside organizations that may operate according to different norms and standards. All these trends make accountability more important than ever ... and more difficult to achieve.

So one of the most pressing challenges that organizations face, particu­larly smaller businesses and purpose-driven nonprofits, is holding each other accountable in a way that's not punitive.

If you don't have explicit techniques for doing that, it feels safer to just avoid difficult conversations, to pretend everything is okay. That BOO-pound gorilla in the room? Um, what gorilla?

Unfortunately, the entire organization pays a price for this. People don't actually feel okay. They're pretending that no one is getting away with failing the team, and they're pretending they're not upset about that. Once the organization goes into pretending mode, nobody is showing up 100% and no one likes it.

That's why I tell clients that nine times out of ten, avoiding conflict ultimately results in more conflict. People feel less trust for each other, and a loss of control over what's going on. They worry they will have to pick up the slack for the non-accountable person, so they go into a defensive mode to avoid that. All of this leads to greater anxiety, less emotional well-being, and lower levels of productivity. Other employees perceive it, as do customers and clients.

If you can relate this to your own organization, know that there is a way forward. It starts with understanding why people avoid conflict.

One of the main reasons for conflict avoidance is simply human nature: Hardly anyone wants to cause someone else pain. When I was a kid my parents told me to call the dentist's office and tell them I couldn't come for my appointment.

I couldn't do it, because I thought it would disappoint the person on the other end of the phone line. This was ignorance on my part, but I see versions of this in business all the time with otherwise quite sophisticated adults.

The fact is hardly anyone enjoys telling others something those others don't want to hear, especially if they are not measuring up and face consequences if they don't.


A related version of this is that some people think it is actually good to avoid conflict. They see themselves as "team players" who don't create problems, so they are not going to be the one raising their hand about lack of accountability. It's better to do the extra work to make up for it than complain about it.

Other people are afraid of retribution. If I go to my supervisor, or

co-worker, and say, "Hey, you promised me this and you didn't deliver," I am taking a real risk.

If that person is having a bad day, they could add to my workload or put something negative in my performance review. I need a high level of confidence that my supervisor will not take my statement personally and will instead respond in a business-like way. If I don't have that confidence, I probably won't make the statement.

Still others are afraid of losing valuable employees. If they are honest with someone who is not being accountable to the team, and that person knows they are in strong position, they might not stick around. I have coached managers in this situation, and I understand their fear. But I also understand the huge irony that avoiding the conflict benefits no one.

The tension on the team doesn't go away. The lack of accountability hurts performance. And the person who needs a wake-up call is not getting it, which could hurt their career over the long term. It may well be better for everyone to let the person walk, if they can't step up and start keeping their agreements.

Last but not least, human nature can cause us to doubt our own judgments. So we see something that isn't quite working well, or that isn't quite fair, or that might violate a policy. Let's say somebody makes a comment that we feel might be culturally insensitive. Or it might have some sexual overtones.

Nobody else seems to be speaking up, so maybe I'm just over-sensitive.

Maybe there isn't a problem. Or maybe I'm the problem. Better to keep quiet.

Now let's consider work-related cultural factors that lead to conflict avoidance.

The biggest is that in today's workplace there is so much pressure to be positive. Anyone who wants to talk about something negative, or point out failure to comply with policies or to keep agreements, is considered a downer. They must not be a team player because they're not totally happy and not totally positive.

This happened to me, in a coaching organization full of successful, driven people committed to helping business thrive. The CEO, a very conscientious, thoughtful person, took me aside and said he was concerned about how critical I was after I commented that someone's presentation could be improved. Even in this environment, where we know that constructive criticism is necessary and healthy, I was singled out for seeming negative.

Another huge cultural factor is today's ubiquitous telecommunication technology. As magnificent as it is, it also facilitates conflict avoidance. We could even go so far as to say it empowers avoidance. Because if we have to deliver bad news of any kind, it's no longer considered necessary to deliver it in person.

We can just send an email or text - and the other party can do the same.

My message says, "The report was due this morning" and they can respond back with "Working on it" and we don't ever have to go any further in that conversation. Or I might send back an even more indirect message: a sad face emoji.

I am fairly confident that the engineers at Apple and at Google are figuring out ways that people can have conflict-avoidant conversations using technology entirely.

"Hey, Siri, call Alexa and ask her to tell Jim that I'm not happy that this report wasn't in on time." Siri and Alexa will be duking it out, and we'll be free to go have a half-caf soy latte. Life will be good again.


Finally, there are generational differences that make it hard to communicate conflict without unintended consequences. The organizational consultant Simon Sinek has done a stellar job of showing how some Millennials were raised with an understanding that everything they did was "great." Many baby boomers, in contrast, were raised by parents who came through two major wars. It's pretty hard to serve in the military - or be raised by someone who was - and have the idea that everything you do is perfect.

When these two generations try to communicate about conflict, they're starting off with a huge disconnect. The younger party is not going to be comfortable with any suggestion that they failed, and the older party is not going to be comfortable with the idea of Millennial infallibility.

So is the solution to conflict avoidance just to dive in an deliver the bad news? While this might feel cathartic, it's probably not the best way forward most of the time. What works more effectively, especially over the long term, is to lay the groundwork for improving accountability naturally.

When people know that giving, or getting, difficult feedback is not going to crater their career, and that they don't have to swallow it without a word, the whole situation eases up.

Communication and cooperation can kick in. Better outcomes become more apparent and therefore more available. The organization gets healthier from addressing the issue rather than ducking it. Paradoxically, people who come through a conflict situation successfully share a bond that can make their future interactions even more successful.

Google has done multiple studies on the characteristics of high-performing teams and effective managers. One of their 10 most salient findings is the following: "In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea."

This statement doesn't mention accountability, but you can make the connection: if people feel emotionally safe at work, they can handle either raising their hand or getting the message when something's not right.

So if your working environment feels like a place where people avoid conflict around accountability, check out the other posts in this blog. You'll find examples and techniques for increasing emotional safety, and for building trust and loyalty, in ways that take much of the emotional charge out of conflict situations.

Then you won't have to wonder if all those positive vibes around the workplace are just a cover. They'll be genuine, because the BOO-pound gorilla has left the to lay the groundwork for improving accountability naturally.