A while back, in a former position, a leader invited staff from throughout the organization to a discussion for the purpose of solving a challenging issue. At one point, we moved from open brainstorming to choosing the best ideas. I politely but directly challenged an interesting but impossible idea that was shared, because I knew it simply was not feasible. It was time to narrow it down to more realistic options. Later, the leader came to me and asked me to please refrain from disagreeing with other staff.

Naturally, being an Enneagram 8, I politely challenged this directive and asked for some rationale, and his response was that he holds meetings to ask for opinions, listens and then does whatever he was originally going to do – gathering input from others was actually just for show. He wasn’t interested in their ideas – he just wanted people to feel heard so they didn’t argue later.

I was honestly surprised by the level of manipulation here because until that time, this leader had not shown themselves to be calculating at all, and I expressed my concern over the lack of authenticity. The conversation ended abruptly and it was clear my input was not welcome. It really bugged me. I thought “what is this about? Why do that?” This person presents as affable, not insidious, so I tried to do the mental gymnastics of making it make sense and here is where I landed: The answer was conflict avoidance – strategic, next-level conflict avoidance. And suddenly, immediately I knew this was not the leader for me.

A leader pretending to care about what someone says so they feel heard with no intention of taking them seriously instead of having a genuine open dialogue? All to avoid an argument. How disappointing and disrespectful.

Why do some people loathe conflict? Many reasons. They believe something unpleasant will happen. They don’t want to hurt the other person. They don’t want their own feelings to get hurt. They fear disapproval. They worry they will not be able to “win.” They don’t want to “rock the boat.”

Sometimes leaders are slow to make decisions – this can be an indicator of conflict avoidance. Or they attempt to lead by consensus, which they believe means that no one can blame them because everyone agreed. But sometimes, the real work of leadership is making hard decisions that will not result in everyone being happy. A good leader can move THROUGH people being disappointed and even deepen the relationship through the resulting conversation.

Ironically, conflict avoiders are often risk averse and yet this behavior leads to ignoring very real problems, putting the organization at risk, and burying feelings which builds resentment, putting our own mental wellness at risk, sometimes leading to underhanded tactics like gossip and manipulation which put our relationships and integrity at risk.

Simply put – avoiding conflict is actually very risky.

A leader avoiding conflict in order to just get along is a leadership failure and it can bring an entire organization down. In leadership, decisions must be made and it’s critical to understand and accept that it is not possible to keep everyone happy. You are going to have to tell people things they don’t want to hear. So, with that in mind, here are a few very practical tips for conflict avoiders that can arm you with the tools you need to turn conflict into important means to an important (and positive!) end.

  1. MENTAL APPROACH: It is a myth that disagreeing with or challenging someone is mean, rude or disrespectful. While you may have had a disrespectful experience with conflict, a challenging conversation where people disagree may or may not be disrespectful. So get that idea out of your head and instead approach a difficult conversation as an experience that may go well or may not, but is certainly not innately bad. Additionally, it is important to consider – do you have anything to apologize for? Have you contributed to this problem or made a mistake? Prepare to own up to it.
  2. SET IT UP: The way you set up the conversation can influence how it will go. Give the person you are meeting with an idea of what to expect. If we are in leadership and we call an unexpected meeting with a staff member, it may raise their anxiety. Be as specific as you can without disclosing anything sensitive before it’s time. You can say “We have made some decisions about XYZ and I wanted to explain everything to you and get your thoughts about next steps so we can announce this effectively.” You are genuinely inviting this person into the process, assuring them that you value their input. Or “I have some feedback for you and want to assure you that it’s an opportunity to grow that we can work on together.” But also remember – that person’s reaction is their responsibility – you are simply doing what you can to prepare them for a good conversation.
  3. BEGIN WITH THE END IN MIND: What is your goal? To address an issue with them so they improve? To get them on board with a recent decision? To assure them of their value even though they didn’t get the promotion they wanted? Make sure you are clear on what you want to happen by the end of the meeting. What is needed for you to feel like the mission was accomplished?
  4. EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED AND PREPARE: Consider the very worst case scenario – the staff member yelling or crying or quitting – whatever scares you the most. Consider how you’ll respond if they have a very negative reaction. Can you live with it if they leave? (And I would point out that if this person simply cannot handle feedback or respond well in a tough conversation – do you really need them?) Consider what resources you have at your disposal that could help. Can you provide something else that the person might appreciate – a new responsibility, some extra time off, going to a conference they have expressed interest in, help with a difficult project. Perhaps this person just needs to hear you spell out what you value about them and what their future might look like if they stick with you.
  5. BE CLEAR AND CONCISE: Whatever you have to say should be said simply. “We have noticed you missing a lot of work and not being present” or “We have made the decision to close our West Side site.”
  6. EXPLAIN THE REASON and/or GIVE EXAMPLES: “You were absent at the Wednesday meeting for the past month.” or “The site just doesn’t have high enough enrollment to justify keeping it open.” This is also a great time to acknowledge if you have contributed to this problem or have anything to apologize for.
  7. ENSURE THEY HAVE HEARD YOU: Ask the staffer/colleague to repeat back to you what they heard. This step is important and often when trouble begins. It may seem silly, but asking them to explain it back to you ensures you won’t have a miscommunication in this conversation, and if you did, if gives you a great opportunity to clarify.
  8. LISTEN: This is where the other person has a chance to respond. Give them your full attention. Don’t interrupt.
  9. ENSURE YOU HEARD THEM: Now ask “Here is what I heard….did I get that right?” If not, try again, or let them explain again. Ensure you have full clarity of their concerns/reactions.
  10. END WELL: See if you can end the conversation well – this can be by offering something to lessen the sting, if you made a decision they don’t like, or offer genuine positive feedback to assure them that even though there have been some issues, you believe in them and value them. Sometimes people simply need to be reassured that you aren’t angry with them.

I have had conversations that have gone amazingly well and some that have not. Once I had to put an employee who had become a close friend on a 30-day action plan. It was not fun. But 10 years later, we are still good friends. Years ago, I addressed a concern about a colleague’s combative behavior and she became so angry she nearly jumped across the table and tackled me. While that didn’t go well, it showed me what I needed to see and that the person was no longer a fit at the organization.

I have also had conversations that have gone so well that looking back, I know it was a pivotal moment for both myself and the other person. One leader I know who used to report to me often references our years together and the way we moved through conflict as integral to his growth. I also grew from these conversations and am thankful that we both hung in there when it was tough.

One last note for conflict avoiders. Think of a relationship as a bridge. If it is built well and tended to, we can trust that it will carry a heavy load. A flimsy or broken bridge will not withstand a heavy load. Conflict is often a heavy load. So, we must invest in relationships, build them strong and reinforce them so that they are prepared for the heavy load of conflict. By strengthening our relationships regularly, we can be more confident that they are strong enough to carry the load of conflict.

  1. stiletto

    March 7, 2024

    It is really а great and helpful piece of information. I'm glad that you just shared this uѕeful information with us. Please stay uѕ up to date like this. Thank you for sharing.

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published.