Leaders who avoid conflict: how does it affect the team?

Are you hiding away from conflict?

Unfortunately, conflict is a part of every workplace.

Whenever you have a collection of people, there will be different goals and aspirations. At some point, somebody will want to do something that conflicts with what somebody else is trying to achieve.

Enter leadership. Leaders are responsible in large part for managing conflict in a workplace. Some leaders revel in conflict, enjoying the battle. Leaders who avoid conflict are at the other end of the scale.

Generally, the held belief is that reducing workplace conflict is good. Working where conflict is common can be difficult and hard to stand. Of course, some conflict is always needed to get things happening. Eggs must be broken and milk must be spilt.

Given the choice of being in conflict or not, most people would choose not. Leaders who avoid conflict choose this approach often. This can have significant detrimental effects on their team — let’s look at the reasons why.

Leaders who avoid conflict struggle to make big decisions

Many decisions have an upside and a downside. Decide one way and you make somebody happy, while somebody else feels bad. Leaders who avoid conflict struggle to make decisions that will negatively impact other people, for fear of creating conflict.

An inability to make decisions can cause all sorts of issues. Work takes longer as people wait for the outcome. People see the leader as “weak”.

The worst outcome occurs when there is no decision made at all. Leaders who avoid conflict may defer decision making until things “sort themselves out”. This can result in people taking different, counterproductive courses of action because no direction has been specified.

Leaders who avoid conflict penalise high achievers

Decisions involving promotions, pay increases or other perks are notoriously difficult for conflict avoidant leaders. Although closely related to the previous point, the focus here is on the individuals who are penalised.

Consider a team in which there is a need for an additional sub-team leader to take charge of a certain function. Several people may be suitable, but ultimately, there aren’t multiple spots available. Leaders who avoid conflict may decline to promote anybody into the position for fear of upsetting someone.

What happens in this case is that everybody is upset, rather than just one person who may miss out on the promotion. In effect, the conflict avoidant leader has penalised her motivated team members, not allowing anybody the chance to progress their career.

Leaders who avoid conflict change direction often

Bob is speaking to Mike about a particular course of action.

Mike, I think we need to push through with the council approvals before we start looking at staffing.
“Sure thing”, says Mike.

In another meeting, Mike is speaking to Tracy, who has a different point of view.

We really need to look at our staffing arrangements for this job — make that your top priority please.
“OK, will do”, says Mike.

So now Mike is taking the directive of Tracy. Does he tell Bob about it? This would result in conflict, so probably not, no.

Eventually, when Bob finds out about this, he’s going to be annoyed. This may even spark more conflict than would have occurred in the first place, if the whole issue had simply been nipped in the bud. Sometimes raising the conflict early avoids issues down the track and is far better than bending like a sapling wherever the wind blows.

How do you reduce conflict avoidant tendencies?

Nobody wants to work for a leader who loves conflict, but leaders who avoid conflict can also be damaging for productivity and morale.

You may notice conflict avoidant tendencies in your leadership style. It’s important to be aware of these and to think through the impact that this is having on your team members and your colleagues around you.

If you notice that you sometimes avoid conflict, try the following:

  1. Reframe conflict as something that is constructive. I love “constructive conflict”. This happens when a disagreement occurs and must be resolved to move forward. It forces people to action and pushes things along. Also remember that conflict doesn’t mean shouting and fighting. It may mean simply having a civilised discussion about how to resolve an issue. Conflict doesn’t need to be aggressive or angry.
  2. Think about the people you are impacting when you avoid conflict. You may be making other people wait while you procrastinate on a decision. Maybe you are stopping your best workers from getting ahead. You might even be setting yourself up for further conflict down the road by avoiding today’s conflict! Consider the ramifications of what you’re doing. Avoiding conflict continuously is probably damaging your reputation.
  3. Involve others in your thought process. “I’m having trouble making a decision on this. I’d love to hear your opinion on the situation.” Canvas the thoughts of others, rather than going it alone and feeling like you’re all by yourself. It’s extremely helpful to get another point of view to get yourself out of your own head.

Ever avoided conflict? How did it impact the people around you? What would you do differently next time?

Originally published at www.thoughtfulleader.com on October 1, 2016.