Office conflicts are rarely as damaging as the effort to avoid them.
Conflict avoidance can seem like good “adulting,” but sometimes it’s as effective as hiding in bed with a blanket over your head. I get it. There are times when we are just not ready to grapple with a thorny issue that someone keeps pushing in our face. When everyone on the planet is stressed out, we may not trust ourselves, or them, to be our best selves. We’re afraid things could turn ugly. So, we start by ignoring the issue, and end up ignoring the person. In these days of social distancing, this is easier and more dangerous than ever.
As I’ve blogged about before, there’s merit to performing “decision/action triage” in order to control and assign a time frame to issues we’re not ready to deal with. But, that requires that we also engage with the person forcing the issue in order to agree on a time and place to work through it. Simply avoiding the issue, and the person raising it, is never a good option. In fact, by trying to do nothing you can force two negative outcomes.
First, conflict avoidance hurts organizational health, which is grounded on open communication — especially at leadership levels. If we simply avoid conflict, we lose the opportunity to fully understand what’s at issue and perhaps correct a misconception (our own, or the other person’s) that could hurt the business. We can’t fix what we don’t or won’t understand.
Secondly, when we avoid people because we don’t want to hear them, we create a vacuum in the narrative that they will eventually fill. They’ll start to tell themselves stories to make sense out of your behavior — e.g., you hate me and want to sabotage my career, you are an idiot or a psychopath, or you don’t really believe a post-pandemic recovery is possible. People will make up explanations that are probably much worse than the actual truth. If you don’t tell someone why you are avoiding them, their behavior will never improve and your relationship will suffer.
If you are avoiding someone who is intent on having an uncomfortable discussion, own it. Call them up; set the agenda yourself and arrange for a face-to-face video chat. Sometimes we just need to be vulnerable and hear what we don’t want to hear. Conversely, if you are sure someone is avoiding you, consider what you could do to diffuse the situation. Don’t assume the worst. Leave them a message asking if there’s a way to schedule a discussion, or if there’s a better way to seek resolution. If we cultivate the habit of being discreet and thoughtful when we share uncomfortable information, people are more likely to hear us.
Social distancing is cool, but let’s do what we can to avoid avoidance.