What do you think of when you hear the word ‘conflict’? I think for a lot of us, conflict conjures up a particularly bad Eastenders’ Christmas – raised voices, harsh words, fists flying, someone trying to calm things down by saying “Leave it Barry, he ain’t worth it”. In fact, many of us are so afraid of this kind of conflict that we are masters at staying away from it altogether. Brits are renowned for not really saying what we mean. Just think how many layers of meaning we can get into the word ‘fine’ – “No really, I’m fine”; “Fine, we’ll do it your way”.
I’m not saying there is never outward aggression at work, but in my experience, eye-rolling, tutting, awkward silences and desperate attempts to get back to a veneer of niceness are much more common.
Does it matter?
You may see it as an excellent British trait. Avoiding unpleasantness is a worthy goal, surely? If all you’re trying to do is avoid a row about politics with your uncle over Sunday lunch, then yes, you may be right. But if you’re trying to run an organisation with other people, then no. Avoiding conflict is a problem. Important issues get quietly ignored. Differences aren’t aired; resentments fester. And if you never really discuss the difficult stuff then you can’t make the right decisions for your business.
I’m not suggesting you should be aiming for a culture of hostile aggression. There are constructive ways of handling difficult issues. But a culture of conflict avoidance can be just as damaging as open warfare – it just feels more comfortable. So with that in mind, here are five common conflict avoidance strategies that you might want to stop using:
1. Too much harmony
Maybe you’re really, really lucky. You work with a group of like-minded people, you get along, you have fun, you all want what’s best for the business. You don’t have any conflict. What could possibly be wrong with that? Sounds idyllic. Well the chances of a group of people taking important business decisions and agreeing with each other over everything, every time are vanishingly small. So either you’re a bunch of clones, hired because you have the same mindset (or, in a family business, you share the same genes) or you’re all deferring to the group. Or both. You may not even know you’re doing it. Often it’s not a case of holding back your opinion, so much as not forming an opinion until you hear what everyone else has to say. If everyone’s doing that, you could end up with a lovely harmonious group, with a massive blind spot, blithely making terrible decisions. Like the harmonious group who designed the Challenger space shuttle which blew up just after take-off.
“We want to grow the business” is a statement you’re unlikely to fall out over. The clearer you get about what that actually means and what your options are, the more scope there is to disagree. Some teams seem to deliberately keep things vague to avoid getting into difficult territory. Others achieve the same aim accidentally by talking around things but not getting clarity on what’s been agreed. You end up all walking out of a meeting with a different understanding of what happens next and it may be months before you realise this. Getting into a habit of agreeing what you are – and, just as importantly, what you aren’t – going to do next is a good discipline. Don’t leave it to the last five minutes of a meeting, unless you want a very rushed and bewildered exchange of “But I thought….” and “That’s not really what I meant..”.
3. Keeping control of the meeting
If you chair a meeting, you may think your role is to keep control of it – stick to the agenda, make sure it doesn’t go off topic, make sure you keep to time, ensure no one dominates, etc. Yes you need to do these things. But keeping control is not an end in itself. Surely the aim is to have the most productive meeting you can have? It’s possible to have a perfectly controlled meeting that covers every agenda item and is a complete waste of time.
Imagine the scene: John’s had his arms crossed for the last half hour; Jane’s said nothing since her pet agenda item was covered and Graham rolls his eyes every time Emma speaks. The ‘agreement’ to each action point (though perhaps voiced in business-speak) ranges from a resigned “Yeah whatever” to a resentful “Fine. Have it your own way”. This is not a team raring to get out there and implement all the stuff they’ve just agreed. Don’t be surprised if next month there’s little progress.
There seems to be something about formal agendas that stifles creative discussion. I understand that they’re sometimes necessary but try not to become over-reliant on them. Surely the question should be “What do we want to get out of this meeting?” not “What is the list of stuff to discuss?”.
4. Pretending we don’t have feelings
Work is a very emotional place. We feel excited by opportunities, proud of our achievements, anxious about under-performing, hurt if our suggestions are discounted, angry at perceived injustice and so on. And yet, we often pretend that emotions aren’t, or shouldn’t, be there. So a discussion gets a bit heated and someone says “Now, now, let’s calm down and keep this professional”.
It takes courage to address the emotion in the room but it often diffuses it more effectively than ignoring it would, as it acknowledges how people seem to be feeling. Try:
- “You seem quite passionate about this. What makes you feel so strongly about it?” with someone who’s clearly getting het up
- “You don’t seem happy with the way the discussion is going. Tell us what’s going on for you.” with someone who’s quietly seething.
This is not to absolve individuals of responsibility for managing their emotions appropriately at work. But pretending those feelings don’t exist does no one any favours.
5. Tiptoeing around the fragile one
If you work for a tyrant, you know how to avoid conflict. You don’t say anything contentious for fear of incurring their wrath. And then, if you’ve got any sense, you look for another job.
But just as tyrannical is the person who silences dissent by being too sensitive, too fragile to handle conflict. They may not know they’re doing it; they may be too wrapped up in their own uncomfortable emotions. But if they get upset every time someone disagrees with them or holds them to account, then eventually people stop doing it. The whole team dynamic can revolve around not upsetting them, which stifles debate. This is one of those situations where acknowledging and addressing the underlying emotions is really important (and, if I’m honest, where professional help may be needed).
More constructive ways of handling conflict require trust and emotional maturity. If you’re struggling with these issues in your team, I’d be happy to have a chat: email@example.com.
Angry woman: kalavinka
Upset woman: Andrew Teman