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Opinion: Book excerpt: Conflict is not the problem, it’s mismanagement

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Editor’s note: Business consultant Marlene Chism’s recently published book calls unresolved conflict “workplace kryptonite,” and she offers a combat plan through three elements: the inner game, outer game and culture, with a goal of expanding conflict capacity. Below are excerpts from Chapter 1, titled Conflict Capacity: Comfort is Not a Requirement.

The three dysfunctional behaviors that leaders use to avoid discomfort are avoidance, appeasing and aggression. Avoiders say, “We’re all adults,” and “I shouldn’t have to tell them.” Appeasers justify high-conflict behavior because “they are a high performer” or “they have seniority.” Aggressors retaliate and say, “I didn’t ask you to work here. Find another job.”

Some leaders put off (avoid) difficult conversations because they’re afraid of their own aggression, they don’t want to make someone cry or they view themselves as a “nice leader.” Yelling at an employee (aggression) won’t improve their performance or build trust, but some leaders do it anyway. The release of anger feels good in the moment and dissipates some of the discomfort. We tell a high-driving salesman we’ll consider the product next year (appeasing) to get him off the phone.

When you think about it, it’s all avoidance; the avoidance of feelings, the avoidance of furthering the conversation and the avoidance of personal growth. The purpose of avoidance is to escape discomfort. In the case of aggression, it’s a way to release the buildup of discomfort. Let’s look at avoidance, appeasing and aggression.

Some leaders readily admit they hate conflict. The rest of us don’t realize how much we chose comfort over accountability. For example, if there’s a bully employee in your department, you may deny it, but the bully is still creating toxicity that’s about to explode. Figuring out why you aren’t addressing the issue is half the battle, but looking to the future is a great motivator. What happens if you keep avoiding? Choosing small comforts in this moment often means accepting crisis in the future. A big excuse managers have for not having a conversation is “I already know what they’re going to say.” This habit of “already knowing” is costly to our personal and professional growth. You have to stop focusing on your past and focus forward for your growth.

Appeasing is telling someone what they want to hear to get the issue off your plate. If you’re a “people person,” it feels good to tell people what they want to hear. In the end, appeasing erodes trust. Suppose you disagree with a colleague, but instead of disagreeing you say, “You have some excellent points, but I have a meeting. Let’s discuss it later.” Do you really circle back to discuss later, or is it more convenient to let it slip into the dark?

Most of us use appeasing at least some of the time – for example, when you don’t want to let someone down when they ask you to work on a project, be on a board, volunteer for a committee or do a favor for them. You feel honored, but your insides are screaming “Nooooo!” But you want them to like you. You don’t have the energy for listening to them try to convince you, so you say yes. Saying yes felt good in the moment, but after the high wears off, you feel resentful and misaligned. You decide to back out later. You just have to create a little white lie that they’ll buy into: Your mother is sick. Your teenager is having a breakdown. Your car is in the shop, and you don’t want to hold up the project. “Maybe next time,” you say with feigned regret in your voice. All of these behaviors compensate for the discomfort you feel when your decisions are misaligned.

Aggression ranges from behaviors such as eye-rolling, telling someone off, name-calling, voice-raising, fist-pounding and violence. Aggression can be a sign that the individual has reached their capacity. They’re tired, overworked or their needs are not being met. Aggressive types often think they’re good at addressing conflict. They say things like “The buck stops here.” What they really mean is that they know how to avoid real conversations without it being called avoidance.

In our efforts to minimize conflict we resort to avoidance, appeasing and aggression. What we fail to realize is that conflict is not the problem, mismanagement is.


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