Conflict Avoidance: How to Get Over It!

Unfortunately, many of us in management positions tend to shy away from change initiatives that would cause conflicts in our organizations. While this tendency is based on the natural instincts of many of us to avoid conflict, these tendencies may be preventing us from enjoying increased productivity and harmony within our organizations. The beauty of a snow globe is unleashed with a shake, and if it remains untouched, the snow settles into a dull, inactive state. Our organizations can act in much the same way, unless we keep our workers aroused.

First, the word “conflict” usually evokes a negative connotation, but it does not have to be negative. Yet, by forcing conflict, one disrupts the low energy patterns of behavior and productivity to which workers have become accustomed. This breaking of norms and their associated inefficiencies causes worker behaviors and attitudes, organizational structures and processes, and, therefore, the corporate culture to find higher efficiencies. This period of unsettling, while uncomfortable at the moment, forces many to voice the frustrations they have closely held for so long. These frustrations could be based on existing policies, procedures, the behaviors of fellow workers, and any other concerns; so, by facilitating the emergence of these issues, managers are promoting the adjustment to a work environment that is more fully accepted by all.

Have you ever held a goal setting session or introduced a controversial topic with your team but required them to develop the goals or policies with little input from yourself? It is amazing to see the group dynamics at work. In the absence of established leadership, certain personalities will surface, there may be a struggle for power, there are those that will complain as long as they are allowed, there are those that want to stay on task, and there are those that may be disinterested and distance themselves from the group activity. More about individual differences later, but the point is that arousing emotions will force many to break the dull patterns into which they have settled.

If we could rely on work teams to change their behaviors, attitudes, and work norms to, in the spirit of maintaining competitiveness, keep pace with the changes of the external environment, then there would be no need to challenge their current arrangement. However, human nature is to relax and to get comfortable in their work environment. When this happens, inefficiencies enter the workplace, and organizations lose their competitive advantage.

Many psychologists agree that adults will tend to take an action that then changes their way of thinking. This happens much more often than an adult developing a new way of thinking that will change the way they act. This further reinforces the need to upset established work arrangements. By introducing conflict and appealing to the worker’s emotional element, a leader can prod workers to act outside the established norms and procedures. By taking these actions, probably as an emotional reaction to the conflict, workers could possibly find some value in those actions and change the way that they approach and accomplish those tasks in the future.

The effective manager understands the needs of his/her workers, particularly their emotional needs. Because reactions to the conflict will be varied based on the emotional needs and perspectives of each worker, the manager will be challenged to approach each worker, frame the conflict in an advantageous manner to that worker, provide motivation by linking the end state to the worker’s particular needs, and also by gathering feedback from that worker for further consideration in the change process.

While conflict does achieve a re-ordering effect, the manager must be aware of the negative effects of certain conflicts. For one, the manager must prevent emotional scarring that weakens the worker’s commitment to the organization. By providing support and understanding through conflict, a manager could actually strengthen a worker’s resolve to support his teammates in the organization. This task can be very challenging, requires a level head, much patience and understanding. Furthermore, a little emotional intelligence on both the worker side and manager side goes a long way.

While causing conflict to achieve harmony seems counter-intuitive and is avoided by many, it can be an effective tool to re-gain the competitive edge that your organization once enjoyed. By giving your organization a regular shake, you can force a re-ordering of attitudes, behaviors, and norms, achieve re-alignment of your organization with the current demands of the external environment, and, like an active snow globe, maintain a object of beauty for all to admire.

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