Conflict Avoidance is Alive & Kicking in American Businesses: What to do about it

Whoever said that all executives are unfeeling, ruthless sharks hasn’t spent much time in the executive suite. This may be true in the movies, but, most of the time, executives are simply well meaning people with a hell of a lot more responsibility than most other employees; and much of that responsibility has to do with creating an environment where all of their employees work well together toward a common goal. 

This, hopefully, will enable the company to bring in enough revenue to keep everyone employed. It’s been my experience, after working with several hundred senior executives and business owners, that these very responsible hard working people, when faced with a challenging interpersonal situation, generally would prefer that it resolve itself without them having to get involved. Why? No one really likes conflict. 

This is what happens inside the mind and body of the executive – most of the time:

The aggrieved executive anticipates (usually subconsciously) that the potential conflictual interpersonal interaction will end up being emotionally charged and uncomfortable at best, or, on the other end of the spectrum, one that will provoke anger or hurt in the other person. The result? Before the executive ever actually talks to the other person, he or she feels anxious (usually without being able to identify and acknowledge their anxiousness). The anxiety is like a low level cold… it’s just below the surface, but it’s there. Then the anxiety does it magical thing… it courses through the body and brain and encourages the executive to avoid having that potentially conflictual conversation. Yet, more often than not (and here is the kicker), he or she believes the conversation actually took place. 

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked a senior executive, “Did you talk to X about Y?” To which the executive responded, “Yes, and I was perfectly clear.”  And, then when I looped back to the other person and asked them, “Did your boss talk to you about Y situation?” they will say, “Nope”… or “I can’t recall.”  How on earth could they not recall something their boss was so upset about and was adamant that they communicated clearly with them?

It’s simple: Their boss wasn’t clear. They talked around it, or, in some cases, imagined they spoke with the person about it. Yes, they really think they did, when they didn’t. The power of anxiety is so potent,  just thinking about talking about a difficult and emotionally evocative situation with someone can make them feel like they actually did so.

Although this type of imagining is rare, more often than not, the boss does a poor job of talking about the issue and the employee walks away thinking, “Something is up, but, I haven’t a clue what it is.” Or, they know the boss is upset with them but not really sure why, and worse still, they don’t know what to do about it. And, if the boss has told them that they are screwing up, they are unclear about what they must do differently to get back on track. 

Over the course of 40 years of working with people, it’s been my experience that few bosses know how to describe what the employee is doing incorrectly or what the employee should do differently or better. All of this feeds into a viscous cycle that ends up in avoidance. The result is employees who dig themselves deeper into a hole, creating such a negative situation, the boss can no longer avoid the situation.

The boss then finally rustles up sufficient courage and talks to the employee By that time, however, it’s frequently too late and either the boss has given up or the people around the employee are so fed up, even if the employee did a 180-degree turn, no one will give them a chance to fix things. So, the only step left is termination; which is generally ugly. 

So what is the cure for this malady?

There are two key steps: Preparation and Practice. It’s a skill; and to become proficient at a skill, you must practice at it.

Preparation means thinking about what it is that the employee does that is not productive or irritating and the impact his or her attitude or behavior is having on you, others, and the organization. Then, writing this down on paper in a logical, linear manner with examples. Then, describe what you want the employee to do differently—what success would look like. You must write this down because: 1) if you can’t describe it on paper, you probably can’t do it orally, 2) in the heat of the moment, when you are talking to the employee, you will be anxious and not remember all the details, which are critical, and 3) When it is in writing, it allows the employee time to digest it and circle back for clarification, and/or to provide you with additional information which might help fix the situation.

Practice:  The more often you have difficult conversations, the easier it gets. You learn that you can navigate through these without too much wear and tear on you and others. They are still difficult to have from a preparation standpoint (no short changing the homework involved), but, they will become less anxiety-invoking. And, each time you do it, you will get better at it, if you are self-aware enough to course correct as you go along. 

A little secret to help get started is to begin having regular developmental conversations before problems occur. Practice talking with your employees telling them what they do well and what they could ALSO do to improve. Then, all of you will get used to having these types of conversations and, if you do have to have that very difficult one, you will be further along as an experienced leader/manager, having had some similar experiences giving “developmental” feedback.