People have many reasons for avoiding conflict at work, here are some of the most common.
• Confrontations are hard. They require a clear head and guts to say what we need to say. Sometimes we have one and not the other. We may have a very clear idea of what we want but we lack the courage to express it. Or we may have the courage but lack the clarity of mind, we may end up confronting people about the wrong issue.
• People like to be liked. When you’re confronting an issue, you are “the messenger of bad news” and we all know what happens to those. So we may prefer to sit it out hoping someone else will be the bearer of bad news, or hoping the problem will go away by itself. Sometimes it does, but many times it just gets worse.
• Peace and harmony feel so darn good. Conflict, even constructive conflict, just ruins the mood. Given the option, most people will settle for fake peace rather than pay the price of authentic peace that calls for us to engage in conflict every now and then.
Avoiding conflict is useless in the long run. You're bound to find conflict wherever you go, whether you cause it or others cause it. Even if you succeed in running away from conflict, at some point it may catch up with you and derail your career. Take for example, a manager that used to work for me, let’s call him Ken.
Ken had a group of employees of various technical levels reporting to him. One of those employees (Joe) was seen taking off from work for hours at a time. Ken knew of Joe’s escapades but did not want to confront him. More than once I confronted Ken about his employee, Ken told me that Joe was a good worker when he was around, and that it just didn’t seem right to confront him as long as he did his work.
I knew Ken was just avoiding conflict altogether, I knew he was just looking for an excuse to avoid holding Joe accountable.
After a couple of months of this, I decided to stop the bleeding, I told Ken: “you know Joe is not completing his work, he routinely leaves unfinished work for the next shift operator to complete. If he worked a full shift, he would complete the work”. Ken got defensive: “Are you telling me I don’t know how to manage my employees?” Well…yes... I was.
I told him Ken I was reassigning Joe to another manager. Ken seemed relieved, as if a burden was being lifted from his back. Joe, on the other hand was very upset when he found out he wouldn’t be working for Ken anymore. Joe knew his freedom to come and go as he pleased was about to end.
One after another, I went on to reassign all of Ken’s employees to other managers in the department. Even though Ken was technically qualified, his reluctance to hold employees accountable killed his effectiveness. Eventually, Ken left the organization. He confessed that he disliked having to confront people about their “immature and irresponsible” ways.
I told Ken that he wasn’t alone, most people dislike confronting others. But disliking a part of your work doesn’t make it go away magically. You still have to do it.
Many employees and supervisors avoid confrontations hoping that the problems will right themselves. They seldom do, on the contrary, most of the time, problems worsen, relationships strain and careers derail.
Joe ended up getting fired by his new manager. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if Joe had been confronted early on about his poor work habits. Maybe he would not have slacked off to such extreme and he would still have his old job.
Whether Joe’s job could have been saved, we’ll never know. What we do know is that Ken’s career could have been much brighter if he had had the courage to confront his employees about their work, instead of avoiding potential conflict.
If you find yourself avoiding conflict, pause and reflect on why you're shying away from confrontations. Look at the list above, see if it describes you. Are you trying too hard to be liked? Does conflict bother you?
Get clarity about the core issue you want to confront and gather the courage to talk to the people that are involved. Don't focus on peripheral issues or symptoms of the problem, get to the core of the problem and deal with it.
Not only will you feel better and be more effective in getting what you want, you will show others that is ok to be upfront about issues and still keep the peace - real and enduring peace.