The Leader’s Responsibility to Address and Not Avoid Conflict

by Daniel B. Griffith, JD, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

Boss avoiding conflict


Leaders must respond to the conflicts that arise within their sphere of influence. Yet, some leaders avoid conflict at all costs. There are numerous reasons for this, such as 1) Lack of confidence and skill in addressing conflict; 2) Being an Absent or laissez-faire leader, leaving team members to fend for themselves; 3) Wanting to be a “people pleaser” or perceived as “nice,” or similar need for acceptance; 4) Fear and anxiety about confronting conflict.

Such leaders need a new game. They must learn to address and overcome their conflict-avoidant tendencies to be the leaders their organization, peers, team members, and others expect of them. Consider these suggestions:

Understand the costs and consequences of your avoidant tendencies. Naturally, there are costs to the organization for unattended conflict, such as loss of productivity, strained communication, and turnover as the “best and brightest” leave. That should motivate any leader, but the personal and intangible consequences should also give leaders pause. When leaders stand by the wayside and leave employees to their own devices to address unproductive conflict, employees lose respect, and the leader’s reputation, credibility, and relationship capital diminish Good judgment and appropriate action to intervene when warranted are hallmarks of effective leaders. Leaders should question their effectiveness when they lack fundamental conflict resolution skills and endeavor to develop them.

Understand when intervening to address conflict is needed — and when it is not. The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, which assesses an individual’s tendency to engage in various conflict modes (compete, collaborate, avoid, accommodate, compromise) suggests that avoiding may make sense for low-stakes conflict where there are no significant consequences for asserting one’s interests or for seriously considering the other person’s interests. Some conflicts are trivial and momentary and quickly resolved among employees on their own, often by ignoring them or letting them dissipate after disputants have cooled off. Employees must develop skills and be guided to resolve many conflicts on their own, so stepping in too early may disempower them. Leaders can legitimately avoid getting involved in many conflicts unless, and until, matters escalate to a point where employees are not able to manage them productively, and failure to address them could negatively impact productivity, team interactions, achieving long-term goals, and similar concerns. Leaders must understand these distinctions and respond – or not – as needed.

Understand how avoidant tendencies are holding you back from effectively managing conflict. When we say someone has “a big ego,” we may think of them as aggressive and seeking to protect their ego by calling attention to themselves and “announcing” their presence. In contrast, avoiders protect their ego by people-pleasing and other actions as a means for fitting in and escaping notice. They may fear disclosing a weakness or vulnerability or feel their emotions are not valid or worthy of expression. They may have learned through painful experiences that remaining quiet and unobtrusive is the safest way to Avoid negative consequences that results from more assertive action. Avoiders often smooth things over, either in conflicts with others or as a third party, as a protective mechanismeven as they fail to heed the long-term consequences of unattended conflict.

Not all conflict-avoidant tendencies are the result of deep-seated psychological hurts. Avoiding conflict isn’t inherently wrong or bad and makes perfect sense in some situations. Why confront a total stranger over something trivial when you can walk away? Some may simply prefer to avoid conflict for most situations, viewing their “live and let live” attitude as the most comfortable and successful means for navigating their world. Some may engage in avoidance responses based on cultural influences and expectations. Whether it is a detrimental, deep-seated behavior, or more of a benign preference, leaders should examine where these tendencies keep them from being as effective as they need to be in responding to conflict situations and learn to adopt new mindsets, skills, and strategies to address conflicts more directly.

Foster relationships where unhealthy conflict is rare. If you tend to avoid conflict, perhaps your best strategy is to foster conditions by which unhealthy conflict never, or rarely, arises. Coach team members, engage in regular meetings and other opportunities to connect, provide supportive feedback regarding performance and development, and listen to the challenges they face. As you become aware of concerns one team member has with another, use these early warning signs to talk through strategies for how the team member can respond – so that you won’t have to! You can’t escape all of the conflicts that arise within your purview, but you can minimize the occurrence of many unhealthy conflicts by being consistent, active, and appropriately involved in the work lives of those you lead.

Gain skills, confidence, and support for responding to conflict. Leaders must continuously monitor situations where their involvement may be needed, use their judgment to intervene at the right time, and engage appropriate problem-solving, collaboration, coaching, and mediation skills to support team members. For avoidance-prone leaders, achieving this level of effectiveness starts with humble self-reflection, honest assessment of deficits, and pursuit of relevant skill development, coaching, and (for deeper personal challenges) counseling to overcome ineffective avoidance strategies and adopt more effective conflict. engagement strategies.

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