The Cost of “Hating” Conflict and Not Learning How To Resolve It
When I facilitate conflict management or issue resolution workshops, inevitably the majority of leaders participating agree they “hate conflict.” And as we all know, we humans rarely do anything we hate. But when leaders feel this strongly about conflict, they usually resort to permissive or avoidant behaviors, allowing issues to fester and contributing to organizational dysfunction.
Feeling conflicted is a natural result of recognizing there is an issue that a leader has to deal with. It might be a performance issue or a behavioral issue that needs to be resolved that triggers fear and avoidance of a difficult conversation. This leads to some or a lot of ambivalence toward dealing with the issue. Leaders often feel confused about what approach to take, especially when the decision about what to do involves negative beliefs or opinions about the other person or possible outcome.
The reality is that no matter how much we might try to avoid it, no matter how uncomfortable we are in dealing with it, conflict will happen, and not having the skills to deal with it only makes it worse. We have a choice. We either learn the skills to effectively manage it, or we deal with the consequences of reacting ineffectively to it or leaving it unresolved.
Conflict Is Normal
Whenever there are two people together, there is the potential for conflict. It exists because people are unique, and therefore, have different values, needs, and desires. Often, conflict is not about right and wrong, but about the differences in our personality type or Striving Style. Dealing with conflict effectively is difficult for most leaders because they have not been taught how to resolve differences in cooperative, non-aggressive ways or they dislike the way conflict makes them feel and avoid it at all costs.
Humans have a primitive “fight or flight” defense mechanism that is automatically activated when they perceive a threat to themselves (conflict). Adrenaline provides the strength for flight (avoidance) or fight (attack). Although it is invaluable when we are in real physical or emotional danger, it sometimes causes an individual’s response to conflict to be inappropriate. What we need to do is develop a greater understanding of our own reactions to conflict so that we can respond to the situation instead of react to what we think is going on.
The Cost of Conflict
There are many costs associated with unresolved issues and conflict in the workplace. Some you can measure because they are easy to find and add up over time. Because of how time-pressured most leaders and managers are, they avoid the conflict conversation, rationalizing and convincing themselves they don’t have time and that it will work itself out. This only leads to a greater negative impact on employees and the bottom line.
Here are a few of the costs associated with unresolved issues at work:
Failure to Achieve Goals
Because of the amount of time spent compensating for unresolved issues that lead to substandard production and time spent by leaders and employees complaining about them, leaders run the risk of not achieving their goals.
Dealing with conflict helps retain skilled employees needed to maintain productivity. Ongoing conflict is one of the leading causes of the loss of high performers whose own career objectives are negatively affected.
Presenteeism, Absenteeism, and Stress
Unresolved issues create stress for employees who will stay home to avoid dealing with conflict. Others will deal with the tension created by stress by showing up but being unfocused and unproductive.
Lack of Team Cohesion
When conflict and power struggles exist between team members without the leader resolving it, infighting and dysfunctional behavior amongst team members are fostered. Team meetings become a waste of time and cost the business lost productivity.
Poor Decision Making
Fear of conflict can cause a leader to avoid making collaborative decisions. Employees become disengaged as they aren’t included in decisions that affect them. Leaders don’t reap the benefit of brainstorming and innovation through creative conflict
Escalation to Human Resources or Lawsuits
Disgruntled employees will escalate their issues both inside and outside of the organization if they don’t feel their issues are handled effectively. When leaders minimize or ignore issues, the conflict can require third-party intervention, requiring more time, effort, and cost.
Nothing diminishes a leader’s reputation faster than having employees complain about them not dealing with conflict. Employees lose respect for their manager and will unstress about them to anyone who will listen. Unfortunately, this is how a leader becomes known both inside and outside the workplace, diminishing their credibility.
What To Do?
To be an effective leader you need to learn how to identify what issues are, and develop non-defensive communication and conflict resolution skills. Stop letting yourself off the hook by saying that you hate conflict and develop these competencies. This starts with taking inventory of your skills, resistance, and emotional barriers to taking responsibility for resolving issues as they present themselves.
Here are a few things to get you started:
Recognize You Are Being Avoidant
Leaders need to become aware of the cost to themselves, employees, and the organization that their conflict avoidant behavior is having. Understanding the fears and beliefs that drive avoidant behavior is the first step to you developing conflict and issue resolution skills. You also need to understand the impact of your behavior on others and how it gets in the way of you achieving your leadership potential.
Face Your Fears
No one likes conflict or the anxiety that you feel when you have to confront employees’ performance issues. You don’t have to like it. You must stop focusing on your feelings and deal with the issue. It is also useful for leaders to learn to tolerate and handle others’ emotional responses without giving in or avoiding them. In most cases, how people feel and their judgments are based on emotions and not the issues themselves. Emotions typically become entangled with the objective qualities of the issue. Before working on an issue, the leader needs to ensure that they are focusing on resolving the issue, not feelings.
Develop Conflict Resolution Skills
Leaders need to effectively build teams, engage employees and deal with conflict to achieve their business outcomes. Non-defensive Communication, Managing Conflict, Conflict Styles, Difficult Conversations, Identifying Issues, Issue Resolution are all skills that we include in our Management and Leadership Foundations Programs. They need to learn tools and approaches that show them how to separate emotional responses and rationalizations from actual issues during difficult conversations. Practicing new approaches aids in the development of new skills to resolve issue, aligning interests and consensus during the conflict resolution process.
The Many Symptoms of Permissive Leadership
Permissive leadership has many ways of presenting itself as it is a result of a developmental gap in the person leading. Allowing conflict to exist without resolving it is only one of the many bad leadership habits that cause organizational dysfunction and needs to be approached as a systemic issue, not just focusing on the behavior of the leader. As with all dysfunctions, there needs to be clarity of goals, expectations, and supportive systems to align behavior behind.
Often, issues remain unresolved because leaders don’t have the tools to approach them in a way that ensures a successful outcome. Fear of emotional or defensive responses also keeps them from approaching conflict in a more transactional fashion. However, it’s the job of a leader to address performance, behavior, and interpersonal issues as they arise. Choosing to address conflict instead of hating and avoiding it saves money, improves employee engagement and performance, and provides emotional stability and security that fosters innovation and collaboration. And while it takes more time and energy to delve into the sources of conflict, ultimately everyone benefits from the above approaches.
Anne and Heather are organizational and leadership development experts at Caliber Leadership Systems, a boutique consulting firm specializing in dismantling of dysfunction in organizations. They are dedicated to empowering individuals, leaders, and organizations to achieve their potential by leveraging their expertise in the neurobiology of human development combined with system thinking approach. They wear many hats – Consultants, Executive Coaches, Trainers, Speakers and Authors – adapting their expertise and solutions to meet the needs of their clients. They bring a unique depth and breadth of knowledge and experience that gives clients the benefit of all of our disciplines to help them achieve their goals.
As experts in human development and behavioral change, leadership and organizational transformation, interpersonal dynamics and the achievement of potential, Anne and Heather have worked with thousands of leaders and individuals from around the world, been featured in dozens of publications, spoken at professional conferences, and written several series of books on personality type and the brain based on the Striving Styles® and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®.
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