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Fear of Conflict

(posted: September 27th, 2012)

This is the second in a series of blog posts in which we will talk about various facets of fear, how it impacts the workplace, and how (and why) we as leaders can change fear into trust.

Fight The Good Fight!

Overcoming fear of conflict by creating trust in the workplace

I believe the majority of us feel that we have effectively communicated what needs to be said, when we haven't actually said anything at all.

And if we really get honest with ourselves, don't we often just hope that our coworkers, leaders, employees and others will pick up on the nonverbal cues we give them, and that what once was a problem will magically be resolved?

"The problem with communication is the illusion that is has occurred"

George Bernard Shaw

Why do we do this, when we know, deep down, it doesn't work?

Because we are afraid of conflict.

We are afraid to boldly confront issues that need to be resolved and, as a result, are left with elephants in the room that nobody wants to acknowledge. There is a problem with elephants, though: you can't keep them around too long before everyone starts to notice the unbearable smell they give off and the destruction they cause with every step they take. Not confronting key issues produces a "stench" that makes the office a difficult place to work, let alone to grow and thrive.

Why Are We So Afraid?

As I mentioned in the first post in this series, Daniel Oestreich and Kathleen Ryan's workplace study of 260 people at 22 organizations found that 70% of the employees interviewed feared there would be repercussions if they were to voice concerns about issues at work. This anxiety about speaking up at work stems from fear of conflict. Fear of conflict is very present in corporate America, not only between coworkers but also for executives and leaders.

Patrick Lencioni (The Trouble with Teamwork) would suggest there are two main reasons why leaders and coworkers fear conflict:

  • Many executives go to great lengths to avoid conflict because they are afraid they will lose control of the group and that someone will have their pride damaged in the process.
  • Others see conflict as a waste of time. They prefer to cut meetings and discussions short by jumping to the decision that they believe will ultimately be adopted anyway, leaving more time for implementation and what they think of as "real work."

I would take it a step further and say that we as a society don't know how to effectively handle conflict.

Some of us "deal" with conflict head-on, reacting immediately in adrenaline-fueled confrontations, while others busily try to "make nice" and sweep the conflict under the rug. I think we don't know what it looks (and feels) like to face the discomfort of conflicts and have civilized, healthy, open discourse.

Think about this: As children we were taught not to fight or argue, and not to disrespect or "talk back to" authority. While this may have been a good foundation to start out with, we were also not taught strategies for dealing with real issues in a constructive manner. All of which leads to fear of conflict as adults.

The truth is, we often maintain a "keep the peace" mentality; nobody really wants to make waves or be the one to create problems in the office.

Benefits of Engaging in Healthy Conflict

The thing of it is, though, we desperately need to engage in healthy conflict in the workplace.

Confrontations that are respectful, open and honest can be considered "healthy conflict."

"In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity"

Albert Einstein

Healthy conflict is confrontation that:

  • has the best interests at heart of all parties involved
  • never becomes personal
  • creates space for growth
  • minimizes animosity
  • maximizes understanding

So why is healthy conflict necessary?

Healthy conflict creates:

  • more cohesive teams
  • maximum growth
  • new and innovative ideas
  • greater employee engagement
  • greater efficiency due to minimized confusion

Teams that have healthy conflict:

  • discover & explore the ideas of all team members
  • solve real problems quickly
  • minimize politics
  • schedule critical topics for discussion

Leaders must be willing to engage in and promote productive conflict.

The best leaders are very often the best listeners. They have an open mind; they are not interested in having their own way but in finding the best way. Healthy conflict provides an opportunity to discover the "best way".

Confronting key issues from a perspective of mutual respect benefits all parties involved as well as the company as a whole.

Embrace the opportunity that lies within healthy conflict.

Unlocking the Key to Healthy Conflict: Trust

I truly believe trusting relationships are essential for healthy conflict. When there is trust, people are not afraid to:

  • say something, for fear it will be the wrong thing
  • ask hard questions
  • correct problems
  • clear up misunderstandings

When trust is lacking, people:

  • get defensive
  • let problems go unresolved
  • feel like their opinion doesn't matter
  • are disengaged
  • feel less responsibility for what goes on within the company

Creating trust may be difficult, however in the long run it will be well worth the effort. In "Engagement is Not Enough" Keith Ayers suggests there are four elements of trust that are needed to create a high-trust environment:

  1. Reliability - Leaders and coworkers follow through on their promises, keep commitments, and meet expected standards.
  2. Acceptance - Everyone needs to be respected and valued. Let people know they are accepted and a valued member of your team just the way they are.
  3. Openness - Willingness to give and receive feedback, voice concerns, and be vulnerable.
  4. Congruence - Be truthful; say what you mean and mean what you say. Show integrity in every situation.

Taking proactive steps to incorporate these four elements of trust into your workplace sets your company up for an environment that encourages healthy conflict.

What steps can you take within your corporation to create a trusting environment?

How can you utilize the four components of trust within your company?

The Beauty in Resolution

With these aspects of trust and conflict in mind, let's take a second look at Shaw's quote:

"The problem with communication is the illusion that is has occurred."

The wonderful thing about a high-trust environment is that confrontation is embraced and transformed into communication. There is no need to wonder if your thoughts, feelings and concerns have been communicated because healthy conflict allows for honest, respectful, vocal communication to occur.

"The greatest of faults...is to be conscious of none."

Thomas Carlyle

If we never embrace the freedom and growth that conflict can bring, the greatest things we can achieve as leaders and corporations will stop at the limitations of our weaknesses.

Challenge Yourself
  • What can you do as a leader to increase trust in your workplace?
  • Is conflict embraced or feared in your office?
  • Why do you value conflict?
  • What are some benefits you have seen result from healthy conflict?

My next post will be focused on commitment, another topic that is close to my heart. Send me your questions and concerns about commitment in the workplace and I'll incorporate them into the post.

Part I - The Ugly Four-Letter Word: Fear

Part II - Fear of Conflict

Part III - Fear of Commitment

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