A Research Paper By Miho Kuroda, Transformational Coach, JAPAN
Avoidance doesn’t solve anything; it merely serves as a temporary salve.– Tony Dungy
Having worked in MNCs for over 20 years in various roles, I have often seen cases where conflicts are mismanaged, resulting in increased stress and demotivation, reduced productivity, and increased employee turnover. Problems become more complex in this type of business setting as we deal with people of diverse backgrounds. Cultures and underlying beliefs clearly play an important role in how employees and leaders approach and handle the situation. Coming from Japanese culture, we treasure harmony and tend to take an accommodating approach to avoid conflicts. However, we might end up promoting bad behavior of employees if we avoid conflict and let the problem slide over time, depending on the nature of the issue.
Last year, as Director of Japan support operations, I spent the entire year trying to work things out to transform the culture of my team based in Japan and Dalian, China. The problem was that we started to see a sign of the impact of toxic culture breeding inside the team like employee turnover, gossiping, bullying, and absenteeism due to low morale and professionalism by a few employees. Although the problem existed over the years, the leaders in middle and senior management with direct and indirect responsibilities had been avoiding or ignoring the conflict over different opinions and interests, which aggravated the situation. They were unintentionally creating a toxic workplace by avoiding addressing the conflict and underestimating the magnitude of the impact on the organization’s health as well as business. The issue was left to the employees, assuming employees would simply handle it themselves. In the end, thanks to support from my mentors and others, I succeeded in convincing senior management to remove one of the employees from the team after he failed to achieve the goals set during the Performance Improvement Plan. It was indeed a long journey and a daunting process altogether.
In this research paper, I’m going to explore how we approach conflict and triggers to conflict avoidance as well as how coaches can help the client to adopt healthier patterns of thought and behavior in this context. Lessons learned from the actual example are highlighted as well.
What Is Conflict Avoidance?
Avoidance is the best short-term strategy to escape conflict, and the best long-term strategy to ensure suffering.– Brendon Burchard
Conflict avoidance is a person’s method of reacting to conflict and it is the act of withdrawing from conflict or avoiding conflict altogether. (Makinwellness, 2022)As explained by psychologist Babita Spinelli, some people avoid interactions that are even healthy conflicts. They are afraid of making others upset or angry for fear of repercussions and consequences as a result of their actions.
It is known that there are 5 different ways people normally manage conflict.
- Accommodating: allows other parties to win. This approach is related to collectivistic culture, which embraces harmony rather than outcome.
- Avoiding: serves as a proper approach if no resolution is likely, or there is not enough time or information to resolve the conflict.
- Compromising: provides a negotiated outcome. Each party will have to give up something in order to reach a solution.
- Competing: rejects compromise and involves winning over other parties. This is associated with individualistic culture.
- Collaboration: seeks a solution that works for both parties. Flexibility and openness are the nature of this type of conflict management.
It depends on the context of conflict as to how people choose to manage conflicts. Each situation for the conflict is different from the trigger of the conflict to the parties involved.
How Do You Know if Individuals Are Conflict Avoidant?
According to Spinelli, if individuals are conflict-avoidant, they show the following traits.
- deny there’s an issue
- fear or avoid expressing yourself
- bottle up feelings — and later explode or become passive-aggressive
- Make jokes during confrontations
- Change the subject when conflict comes up
- strive to be seen as the nice one
- Avoid disagreeing with others, even when you inwardly disagree
What Causes Conflict Avoidance?
People avoid conflict for many reasons. They may see conflict as a negative experience.(Makinwellness, 2022) These uncomfortable feelings could be coming from past experiences of trauma or upsetting incidents. Some leaders might simply have limited experience and few effective strategies for dealing with conflict.
What Are Some of the Examples of Conflict Avoidance?
According to Stuart Hearn (2017), there are three main examples of conflict avoidance in work situations.
Simply Ignoring the Issue at Hand
One of the forms of conflict avoidance is denial of the issue. An example might be that an employee might pretend he/she is fine and does not report the problem with their manager or HR although there’s office bullying. Ultimately this employee might lose motivation and productivity.
A Change of Conversation
This is another form of conflict avoidance through side-stepping. Whenever a particular issue is brought up, the employee or his/her manager might change the conversation or raise other unrelated topics. As such, no issues ever get resolved.
Complete Withdrawal From the Situation
People using this coping strategy could be also described as concealers who take no risk and say nothing. They may think this approach is no harm to the business and it’s beneficial. However, the issue remains unresolved or it could aggravate the problem in the long run.
How Does Conflict Avoidance Affect the Business?
When conflicts are not properly dealt with and avoided, the costs and damage to an organization’s health could be tremendous. Organizations could lose money due to lost productivity, performance, employee turnover, and absenteeism. (Maureen Moriarty, 2007)Leaders could be losing credibility as they are allowing bad behavior and a toxic culture. It takes a toll on the employees with an impact on their morale. People who are trapped in conflict are known to go under stress with sleep and productivity problems. Moriarty (2007) describes other costs of unresolved conflict:
- Miscommunication resulting from confusion or refusal to cooperate
- Quality problems
- Missed deadlines or delays
- Increased stress among employees
- Reduced creative collaboration and team problem-solving
- Disruption to workflow
- Decreased customer satisfaction
The Cultural Implications of Conflict Avoidance
Ting-Toomey (1997) described the strongest cultural factor that influences your conflict approach is whether you belong to an individualistic or collectivistic culture. Personal experiences and learned behaviors are known to establish our primary response toward conflict. (Moriarty, 2007))
Individualism vs. Collectivism
With a collectivist culture, the needs and goals of the group take priority over those of each individual. (Kendra Cherry, 2022)According to Cherry (2022), following in bullets are some of the common traits of collectivist cultures. Asian countries such as China, Japan, and South Korea as well as countries in South America tend to be more collectivist.
- Social rules focus on promoting selflessness
- Working as a group
- Doing what’s best for society
- Families and communities have a central role
Contrary to collectivist cultures, individualists emphasize characteristics such as assertiveness and independence. They are more inclined towards pursuing their own interests and fulfillment. Sharon Monteiro (2022) describes the following in bullets as key traits for individualistic cultures. Western culture promotes a culture of individualism. The focus is drawn towards the individual employee and their specific needs. Therefore, competition is high in the society.
In reality, the workplace is much more nuanced and you cannot really define the organization as being purely individualistic or collectivistic. Organizational cultures are blended and exist in blurry lines. They are dynamic and evolve and change shape and form.
Overcoming Conflict Avoidance in the Workplace
The following highlights some of the key considerations in coaching a client who is conflict-avoidant.
- Acknowledge the client’s feelings and keep the conversation safe through shared respect
- Acknowledge the client’s feelings mindful listening fully attending to what the client has to say. Allow the client to name their feelings. Emotions are a good indicator of how important the situation is to the client.
- Keep the conversation “safe and blame-free” through shared respect without judgment and attachment.
Some of the coaching questions include:
- What is really going on?
- How do you feel about it? Can you name your feelings?
- I see you are [expression of feelings and emotions (ex. frustrated)]. Where does it come from?
- Make sure that the coaching conversations are grounded in facts
- Encourage the client to base the conversation around clear facts and specific examples to stay grounded and be objective. Hard facts and data as well as concrete examples would help to reflect on what’s really happening and what’s at stake.
- Help the client identify costs, both realized and opportunity costs to understand the business impact in the full picture. Assist them in knowing where they are headed and their actions are aligned with the business goals in the big picture.
Coaching questions could be:
- What is the reality?
- How do you think you are approaching the conflict?
- What is at risk by avoiding conflict?
- How far are you willing to let this go?
- What are the organizational expectations including behavioral boundaries you are trying to meet?
- What are the consequences of meeting (or not meeting) those expectations?
- Reframe the way the client thinks about conflict
- Encourage the client to create alternative contexts to shape the understanding of the conflict behavior by the following actions:
- Ask questions to understand their approach and triggers to their dealing with the conflict. Do they have a negative perception of conflict? Uncover their anxiety and fear associated with their behavior and approach.
- When you know the client is avoiding conflict, identify and evaluate the beliefs developed regarding conflict. There might be limiting and disempowering beliefs, creating blockers and stoppers for the client to take action and move forward.
- Help the client to build a support network of people who truly know them, motivate them, or counter their anxiety and negative thoughts. For a highly complex scenario, the client might want to turn to external resources for support and advice for relief and resolution.
Some of the coaching questions that a coach can ask to support the clients are:
- What is your perception of conflict?
- What is your “history” with conflict?
- What is your comfort level with conflict? (Ex. avoid at all costs, confront when appropriate, fine with/love confrontation)
- What do you think is causing you to deal with conflict this way?
- What do you think you would gain or lose if you continue to approach the same way?
- Is this approach helpful to a current situation? How else can you view your circumstances?
- Does this new perspective provide more options?
- What would you do differently if no one is judging you?
- How would this situation be seen by someone else in your environment?
- Encourage the client to understand the best approach to the conflict
Encourage the client to own the present issue and drive resolution. Be clear about what they want, what they are getting, and the gaps.
- Assist the client in understanding what’s under their control and vision aligned to their goals to come up with a solution to the situation
- Help the client to document communication and action plan and get granular with timeline and tasks
Some of the coaching questions that a coach can ask to support the clients are:
- What type of resources can help you achieve your goal?
- Think about a goal you have in mind – In what situations and contexts would achieving your goal be helpful?
- What are you ready to change to accomplish your goal?
- What does success look like for you now?
- How do you think you could achieve the goals aligned to your vision and organizational goals?
Conflict Avoidance and Interpersonal Conflict
Conflict avoidance and interpersonal conflict a performance management issues that employees of all levels need to address. Avoiding conflict and difficult conversations can be expensive for the company and you could suffer loss of best talent.
When your client is conflict-avoidant, they are encouraged to stay grounded in facts and specific examples and become fully aware of the business impact of the conflict in question. Through mindful listening and reframing, the client is empowered to shift their perspectives and explore the conflict in depth to understand the best approach to the conflict.
Managing Conflict Across Cultures, Tom Grothe 2022
Why You Need to Stop Avoiding Conflict (and What to Do Instead)
Summary of "Resolving Conflict in a Multicultural Environment"
Avoid Conflict Destroys a Leader’s Credibility 2021
Workplace Coach: Companies pay the price when managers avoid dealing with conflict, Maureen Moriarty 2007
Conflict Management Styles, Ivan Andreev 2021
Culture and influence in the workplace: Collectivism vs Individualism, Sharon Monteiro 2022
What Is a Collectivist Culture? Kendra Cheery 2022
Is Conflict Avoidance Making Your Business a Toxic Workplace? David Stanislaw 2020
Conflict Avoidance: Is Peace Always Worth the Cost? Psychology for Business
Understanding Intercultural Communication 2nd Edition Stella Ting-Toomey 2017
Conflict Avoidance In Relationships: What Is It And Why Does It Happen? Makinwellness, 2022