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Leadership Fail: How Avoiding Conflict Can Make You an Ineffective Leader

If you avoid conflict to keep the peace, you start a war inside yourself.—Cheryl Richardson

As I sat having a conversation with a friend a couple of months ago at the HDI conference in Orlando, I recalled some research that I had done a couple of years ago regarding the three biggest “leadership fails” I have seen over the years that I have been working in Emotional Intelligence delivery and coaching executives. To be short, these are the top three actions that will derail your career faster than a bad taco on a Tuesday night!

  1. Conflict avoidance 
  2. Use of sarcasm 
  3. Bullies that are controlling 

We will only be discussing the avoidance of conflict in this article and save sarcasm and bullies for another day…all are poison and destructive.

Ok, first, none of us start out being effective with managing conflict. So, don’t feel bad if you are not comfortable with it. Make it a point, though, to become skillful and masterful at the subject. It will serve you well your whole life. This should be in the top five on your bucket list for personal growth.

How we were raised, usually defines how we deal with the whole conflict thing. I grew up largely in New York. We have a reputation for being very direct in that area of the U.S. It’s not rude (believe it or not), it is direct. Big difference. My truth is important, and you need to hear it. Stop wasting my time. I am not responsible for how you receive that information and you are not responsible for how I receive your feedback. I am responsible for me. You are responsible for you. It’s all in the delivery though! 

Similarly, I watched my friends from New York Italian families (and I am generalizing) deal with their conflict immediately: with their hands waving, with their voices shouting, with their words expressive. And once it was out in the open and everyone was heard, the conflict died, and the love returned. In the words of the Oscar winning movie, Moonstruck, “Ala Familia!”(meaning “to family,” which we are as an IT group).

Personally, I prefer that if someone has an issue with me, that they tell me up front, so I can acknowledge and deal with it. It is refreshing to me. At least I know where you stand, and that is powerful. I am not afraid of it, but that took time, practice and humility for me to become more comfortable with it.

Typically, in the Midwest of the US, we tend to be a little more indirect (OK, a lot more). It sounds like this…I am not going to tell you that I have conflict because:

  1. I don’t want to hurt your feelings or, 
  2. I am scared to say something because you may not like me afterwards or, 
  3. If I say something there will be some type of retribution/retaliation.

So, we swallow conflict and it ends up bursting out in another passive aggressive manner/behavior, and if you don’t think it does, you are wrong! What does avoiding conflict do? 

  • Lowers morale of the team 
  • Lowers the trust that you can actually lead 
  • Shows your character is lacking 
  • Things need to be dealt with and if you do not, someone else will rise to the occasion…nature abhors a vacuum. You will be left behind. Should you be?

Let us identify what our first actions should be when conflict arises so that avoiding it does not punish you.

  1. Be self-aware! Conflict is not hard to miss. Emotions are displayed by the heart’s electro magnetic field and can be felt and measured up to 25 feet away (Journal of Cardiology, 2003). If you listen! Your initiator is… the minute you want to avoid it, that is your “tell” to deal with it. 
  2. Instead of going into the conversation with the guns blaring with what you want to say, use inquiry. Ask as many questions as you can to find the cause and the motivator of the conflict. In other words, be quiet, simply be curious, and become a detective. The more you are quiet, the more you will find out. The more you find out, the better you can identify your strategy to manage the conflict. 
  3. Emotions can get us into trouble. But, they can also get us out of trouble. Use emotions when you broach the conflict—not of frustration and anger, but of empathy and optimism. The other person will eventually mirror your emotion. There is a scientifically proven mechanism in each one of our cells that causes us to reflect another person’s approach to us or our approach to them. Use that mechanism to your advantage!

There are different levels of conflict. The best wisdom that I can share with you is to immediately manage the situation, before emotions become big. Don’t let that happen. If we avoid it, that is exactly what happens. And it can go from 1 to 100 instantaneously.

  1. Figure out if this is really conflict. Or is it just a heated exchange? Is it just someone who is frustrated and they don’t feel heard? There is a large difference between conflict and simple emoting. Are you listening to them and acknowledging how they feel, or are you avoiding the emotion because you feel uncomfortable? That is on you. Acknowledge the emotion that the other person is having. The emotion will lessen, and you can get to the facts more easily. 
  2. When there is a little bit of conflict, do you deal with it the same way you would if there is a lot of conflict? We don’t use a double-barreled shotgun to shoot a kitten-sized conflict! The reaction doesn’t need to be the same as if it were a “tiger” of a conflict. Measure the conflict. What is an appropriate response to the level that exists? Be precise in your measurement of response. 
  3. I know this may sound rude, yet hear me, please. Shut up and listen! You have nothing to prove, nothing to defend, and nothing that is so important that overshadows a relationship, even if you don’t like the person. Be quiet and hear that person. You don’t have to respond immediately. Sit back, acknowledge that person, and then you can wait to respond. Take time so that you can formulate that response in a fair and calm way later, when you have all the facts and your emotions are in check.

The avoidance of conflict is a leadership fail. Give yourself permission to learn how to deal with it. You won’t be graceful at first. Over time and practicing with the smaller conflicts immediately (before they become big), you will find your confidence, ability, and comfort increase easily. As with anything in life, it takes desire, persistence, and practice. I believe we can all do this, and in doing this, we can show our courage and willingness to establish relationships that are sincere, authentic, and effective and result in trust. That, in the end, is what this journey is all about.


Thank you for listening! Now go and deal with it!


Deborah Monroe is one of eighteen Master EQ practitioners in the world, through the Global EQ Community of 6 Seconds. She's also an associate with the Institute for Organizational Performance and an HDI business associate. Working with all levels of executive leadership, management, and individual contributors, Deborah concentrates on integrating humans and process to create a balanced working environment. Her aim is to build understanding and empathy, creating a positive bottom line through employee and customer retention.

 

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