How fear of conflict affects workplace communication

Humans by nature encounter situations in which conflict occurs - it’s an essential ingredient for resolving a problem. In a workplace environment where supervisors, subordinates, external stakeholders, clients and customers are all required to make collective decisions on a regular basis, conflict is bound to arise every once in a while. Conflict occurs in the workplace for many reasons. Perhaps a manager’s feedback isn’t received as well as she or he had hoped, or there is competition and power discrepancies amongst employees.

Why do people avoid conflict?

Just as conflict is a part of human nature, the human construct of social niceties has brought with it the desire for us to avoid conflict all together. Our natural tendencies and how we are hardwired can influence how we believe conflict should be addressed. Managers who are naturally highly accommodating may want to be the ‘good guy’, but in doing so can often avoid important and constructive conversations that have the potential to ignite conflict. Equally, highly assertive managers may tend to take a very direct approach (the “four by two” approach) which can start the whole conversation off on the wrong foot. Which approach is right? Consider this.

Conflict happens. It’s a normal part of everyday life whether we like it or not. Although we might think that conflict interferes with our business objectives, the way we deal with it can have an even bigger impact on the overall success of your company.

Conflict that is swept under the rug will not just go away. Unresolved conflict can fester into a wound that is hard to heal, so it’s best to confront conflict before it turns into a bigger problem. If conflict goes unresolved, you could see employees’ engagement and productivity levels plummet and your best talent walk out the door. Taking an overly direct approach may see the employee defending their position rather than listening, and feeling hard done by, which is also likely to cause a reduction in engagement and productivity.

How does conflict interfere with communication?

When managers fear conflict, they can breakdown the communication lines that run within your organisation. If managers fail to communicate effectively with their subordinates and teams, employees might feel less likely to approach their leaders if and when something goes wrong. And if a manager is scared to give constructive feedback to an employee or team, it can negatively impact the growth and development of that individual or team.

So, how can leaders face their fear and address conflict head on?

Gain a coach’s mindset

Coaching skills equip individuals with the ability to communicate effectively, giving them the confidence to approach difficult conversations with ease. A coach will set regular one-on-one meetings with their coachee to see how they’re going with their work and find out what their challenges are, so that they can reach their goals independently. They will also provide regular feedback, both positive and constructive, so that individuals can better understand their strengths and areas requiring improvement. Regular and effective communication means that these leaders often know about issues before problems arise. Conflict is therefore less likely to occur and if it does, they’re well equipped to deal with it.

Be objective yet considerate

When conflict does arise, a great leader will consider each party’s concerns, while remaining focused on the overall objectives of the company. When dealing with conflict in the workplace, it’s important to put yourself in the shoes of each individual involved with the conflict while formulating an outcome that will best serve the company. Remember, if one or more parties isn’t happy with the outcome, it could impact negatively on their wellbeing, engagement and productivity.

Be open

A coaching leader is open, trustworthy and approachable. Maintaining open lines of communication amongst individuals and teams is the best way to prevent conflict from arising and to address it effectively when it does. Giving regular feedback is a great place to start. It’s important to foster an environment in which people feel confident to approach their managers and fellow workers when there is a problem or when they would like advice.

Seek out conflict

Poor managers often have their blinkers on when there is a problem within their team or wider organisation. In order to address conflict, you’ll need to know when it is occurring. Seeking out conflict is not as investigatory as it may seem. You simply need to communicate effectively and follow the progress of individuals and teams so that you know if they have any concerns and if any problems are emerging.

Leverage conflict for growth and development

Where there is conflict, there is the opportunity to learn and grow. Addressing and resolving conflict is a huge learning curve for leaders and employees alike. It requires leaders to problem solve in a high pressure situation and manage relationships in an objective yet empathetic manner which addresses each individual’s needs and desires.

About David Leahy

David Leahy is the Director of Directions Unlimited, a specialist consultancy providing people solutions of every shape and size – from JobFit assessment testing, behavioural interviews and outstanding managerial tools to executive one-to-one coaching, team and group coaching programs. David “gets” business having worked for more than 30 years with multinationals and SMEs. An accredited organisational coach, he possesses a broad coaching experience having coached at CEO and Senior Executive level in the USA, South America, Europe and Australia.

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