Management by Coaching
By Kimberly Paterson, CEC
THE BAD HABIT: AVOIDING CONFLICT
Overcoming the destructive behavior that can end a promising career
It was 5:15 on Thursday evening. Josh was still at his desk fixing a report submitted by his teammate Barb. The report was three days late and filled with typos and incorrect information. The document reflected on the entire team, and Josh was uncomfortable forwarding it to his manager.
To add insult to injury, Barb had waltzed out of the office 45 minutes earlier without any apology for the late report. Josh was fuming. He felt the familiar throbbing pain on the right side of his head, signaling another migraine. He’d had it with Barb. Over-confident in her position as the senior person on the team, she seldom pulled her weight. Josh was constantly cleaning up her backlog, handling her client calls while she took extended lunch hours, and compensating for her shortcomings.
Peacekeepers tell themselves that avoiding conflict keeps relationships on an even keel and preserves the orderly function of the organization. In fact, the opposite is true.
As frustrated as he was, Josh tolerated Barb’s behavior. In his eyes, confronting her was not an option. It was simply too high a risk. Barb was not someone you questioned. She was forceful, aggressive, and when challenged, gave the appearance she might go ballistic at any second. Josh is what is often referred to as a “peacekeeper” personality—someone who is committed to avoiding conflict at all costs.
It’s important to differentiate between peacekeepers and “peacemakers.” Peacemakers are people who recognize when a conflict has gone far enough and try to find ways to bring it to a successful resolution. Peacemakers act by rational choice. Peacekeepers do whatever they can to keep conflict from rising to begin with. They act out of fear and compulsion. By suppressing their natural reactions and emotions, they increase tension in groups and relationships by sweeping unvoiced feelings under the rug.
According to James Waldroop, Ph.D., and Timothy Butler, Ph.D., directors of MBA Career Development at Harvard Business School, “Avoiding conflict” is one of 12 discrete behavior patterns that consistently derail careers or get people fired. The behaviors are consistent from one industry to another, from the lowest to the highest level employees. (For two of the other 12 patterns, see Rough Notes, April 2021: “The Bulldozer” and Rough Notes, June 2021: “Never Feeling Good Enough.”)
Spotting the conflict avoidance pattern
Peacekeepers are phobic about the possibility of confrontation. They’re paralyzed by the uncertainty of how things may turn out. They worry that things will spin out of control and that people may say something that will permanently damage relationships. As a result, someone may be hurt, quit, cry, get angry, or have a meltdown.
Peacekeepers think that avoiding conflict keeps relationships on an even keel and preserves the orderly function of the organization. The opposite is true. The inability to surface issues, disagree, and productively resolve conflict ultimately undermines relationships and teams and can become destructive to the organization. Circumventing confrontation is their form of self-protection. They say they put people’s feelings first but, in reality, they put suppressing feelings first.
The peacekeeper pattern is especially apparent and problematic when people step into leadership roles. Peacekeepers have a high need to be liked. They don’t take risk, fight for resources, advocate for their team, confront peers when things aren’t working, or address direct reports’ performance issues. High-performing employees who report to peacekeeper managers tend to jump ship and seek opportunities elsewhere.
Peacekeeper leaders suppress their true thoughts and feelings to avoid conflict. They like everyone and agree with everything. People never know what they think. As a result, they’re often viewed as weak and untrustworthy by their managers, peers and direct reports.
How the organization is impacted
Conflict avoidance exists in all levels of the organization, from frontline workers and managers to senior leaders and boards of directors. In some organizations it’s deeply embedded in the culture. The price tag to both individuals and the organization is steep:
- Limits on growth potential. The clash of opposing ideas and strategies is a dynamic, creative process that reveals the strengths and weaknesses that can ultimately produce better outcomes. People who go out of their way to avoid conflict often suppress creative ideas that might improve the organization. They fear pushback or resistance from people who might feel threatened or oppose the ideas for other reasons. Peacekeepers handcuff themselves as they worry about other people reacting negatively. They become conservative in their thinking in order to minimize the risk of conflict. When in a leadership role, the individual may stifle others’ creativity and encourage status quo thinking. By avoiding controversial topics, opportunities are squandered through inaction.
- Underperforming employees. Leaders who are uncomfortable with conflict tend to avoid sharing the direct feedback their people need to perform at their highest level. In their desire to keep the peace, they tend to overlook bad behavior, which hurts their credibility and creates tension among team members.
- Reduced productivity. Managers report that they spend anywhere from 20% to 40% of their time dealing with conflict. When conflict is unresolved, people engage in resource-sapping avoidance tactics, including ruminating excessively about crucial issues, complaining, getting angry, doing unnecessary work and avoiding the other person altogether. This time is wasted because it detracts from important work and doesn’t lead to resolution.
- Mistakes. Healthy conflict is necessary for teams to learn from past mistakes, take decisive action and tap into the entire team’s talent and experience. When people avoid conflict, mistakes that might have been exposed or resolved through open debate go undiscovered and unfixed.
- Missed time from work. A study commissioned by CPP, Inc., the publishers of the Myers-Briggs Assessment, revealed that 25% of employees said that avoiding conflict led to sickness or absence from work.
- Higher employee turnover. The CPP, Inc., study also indicated that one-third of respondents said that conflict resulted in someone leaving the company, either through firing or quitting.
Root cause of the behavior
Like most deeply engrained behavior, the peacekeeper pattern typically begins in childhood. It equally impacts men and women. A common cause is a child lacking positive role models for surfacing and resolving conflict. Kids may receive the message that “we don’t argue,” or “we don’t talk about our feelings,” or “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it.” The flip side of the coin is that the family may constantly be in conflict—arguing but never resolving anything. A healthy attitude about conflict comes from seeing people voice their feelings, disagree, get angry, find some resolution and still like, respect or love each other when things cool down.
A weak sense of self also contributes. This person fears they won’t be able to get their point across in the face of opposition. Think of an introverted child, with seven extroverted brothers and sisters, who could never get a word in at the dinner table. At an early age, the child may give up fighting to be heard. Another cause is growing up something of a loner on the fringe of the family. Think child prodigy violinist born into a family of athletes who live, eat and drink sports. Always feeling like the outsider, this child craves acceptance. That unmet need can be exacerbated in adulthood in settings where the individual is a minority in terms of race, gender, or socioeconomic status.
Coaching a peacekeeper
If you choose to do the coaching yourself, keep two fundamental goals in mind: 1) desensitize the person to conflict and 2) build their skills at handling conflict. Like someone afraid of flying or terrified of spiders, the peacekeeper is phobic about conflict. Logic won’t calm their anxiety or remove their fear. Here are four techniques that work:
- Allay their fear that they need to change from a conflict avoider to a conflict seeker. People worry they’ll be asked to become something they’re not or end up being like the people they dislike. Explain that there are some situations where they’ll need to behave more like a lion and less like a lamb. That doesn’t mean changing who they are.
- Start with observation. Ask them to identify some co-workers who don’t shy away from conflict and then spend time observing them when conflict arises. How do they talk, what is their body language, how do they approach others? If there is one person in the group they admire, have them pay special attention to that individual. In addition to gaining information, this begins the desensitization process by enabling the individual to get closer to conflict without feeling threatened.
- Learn post-conflict follow-up. Peacekeepers fear irreparable damage to relationships. Show them how to normalize relationships after a conflict has occurred. The indirect way is to stop in the colleague’s office or call if working remotely. Re-establish the relationship by talking briefly about a business topic or something unrelated to business. For example: “How is your husband doing after his knee surgery,” or “I see your son’s team made the state finals.” The key is to re-establish your connection. If the conflict was really heated, being direct works better. Say something like “Things got pretty heated in there today. I want you to know that I appreciate your concerns; in this case we just see things differently. I value our relationship and want to make sure we’re okay. If we’re not, I want to do whatever we need to do to get okay.”
- Build the muscle. Behavior change is most effective when people gradually build the muscle they need to strengthen. An effective way to begin is to have the person list the situations and people they avoid conflict with at work and home and rank the list from most to least difficult. Start with the easiest item on the list and have the individual script out what they would really like to say to that person or in that situation. Next, work with the coachee to get the dialogue right. Starting with easier interactions and gradually tackling the tougher ones helps to desensitize conflict. Repeated practice develops the muscle and the coachee’s confidence that they can successfully manage conflict.
While peacekeepers may be extreme in their aversion to conflict, they are not alone. According to a study conducted by authors of the New York Times bestselling book Crucial Conversations, 95% of an organization’s workforce struggles to speak up to their colleagues about their concerns. Leaders who take the time to coach and model healthy conflict will reap the rewards of increased employee engagement and loyalty and a more productive work environment.
Kimberly Paterson, Certified Executive Coach and Master Energy Leadership Coach, is president of CIM(www.cim-co.com), CIM works with organizations and individuals to maximize performance through positive lasting behavioral change. Her clients are property & casualty insurance companies, agencies, and brokers. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Kimberly on www.linkedin.com/in/kimberly-paterson and twitter.com/CIMChangeMinds.