9 Reasons Avoiding Conflict Debilitates Leadership

Kent has resorted to complaining and alcohol.

A senior IT leader for a global manufacturing company, Kent was asked to lead IT for an entire division two years ago. Given his fifteen years of service with the company, Kent felt it was an ideal next step on his professional journey. Then, eight months ago, Kathy, an outside consultant, was brought in-house and took over Kent's job. Kent now reports to her.

Kathy was supposedly bringing fresh eyes to the company, as well as a wealth of experience. However, she's not been open to any of Kent's thoughts or ideas. Every decision he makes needs her approval. Kent's attitude about work has changed. For the first time in his career, he dreads the alarm clock going off on Monday morning.

Kent isn't the only one who feels this way about Kathy. In fact, Kent and a number of his colleagues have a standing weekly meeting where their main agenda topic is to complain about Kathy and her micro-managing. As you can guess, Kent and Kathy have never sat down together and talked about how the way they're working isn't working.

Kent and Kathy aren't alone in avoiding conflict. Research from VitalSmarts has shown that 95% of a company's workforce has a hard time speaking up to their colleagues about their concerns. Instead of dealing with the issue, they may ruminate, complain, withdraw, or go rogue on the job.

In some ways, it's easy to see why leaders avoid conflict. It's emotionally uncomfortable to address conflict head on. However, stepping out of one's comfort zone is exactly what leaders need to do. They need the courage to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. No one else is going to do it for them. And all of the effort that goes into repressing, hiding, or denying conflict comes with some major costs. Here are 7 reasons why avoiding conflict debilitates leadership.

  1. Cost. Ultimately, leadership is measured by results. In an organization, the easiest result to measure is the bottom line. VitalSmart research also found that employees waste an average of
    $1500 for every important conflict they avoid.

  2. Time. Kent spent time in a weekly meeting with his colleagues to complain about the issues with Kathy. All that time complaining was time that wasn't spent on doing the work that really matters. The research has found that every conflict not addressed wastes about eight hours of time.

  3. Morale. The emotional discomfort of unaddressed conflict lasts much longer than discomfort of stepping into the fire of directness. Negativity festers in emotions like fear, anger, hurt and betrayal. This worsens relationships by breeding mistrust and a lack of empathy and understanding. When people are in such negative states, they have less energy to focus on their jobs.

  4. Decision making. When people are stewing in the negativity of unresolved conflict, the bulk of their neural resources are tied up in the limbic (emotional) brain. Their neocortex (thinking) brain stops being fully online. As such, the ability to make good decisions decreases.

  5. Absenteeism.  Kent dreaded the alarm clock in the mornings. While he chose to go to work, how many employees call in "sick" to avoid being in a toxic environment? One of the biggest sources of employee absenteeism is disengagement. Not dealing with the "elephants" with those you lead sends a clear signal for people to check out--physically and emotionally.

  6. Health issues. The human mind and body are inextricably linked. As such, the emotional stress of conflict avoidance can often create physical stress and symptoms. In fact, when it's really bad, the results can be fatal. Researchers at the Stress Institute at Stockholm University studied more than 3,100 men over a 10-year period and found that if they worked for toxic bosses, their risks for heart attack, angina and death rose.

  7. Customer Service. If your employees are upset with you over an unaddressed conflict, how likely do you think they'll be able to shut that off, and be ideal ambassadors for your company to your customers? Not likely. Emotions are contagious, and negative emotions are the most contagious. Your disengaged, negative employee is going to spread that negativity around: with customers, colleagues and coworkers.

  8. Escalating complaints. If you clean up a mess when it's small, it wipes up quickly and easily. However, if you let it sit, it hardens and can cause long-term damage. Problems that are ignored can escalate and get out of control, creating even more workplace drama. This can look like escalation, formal grievances, and lawsuits.

  9. Turnover. If people are working in a low-trust, unhealthy environment, they're much more likely to jump ship to seek out some fresh air and greener pastures. They want a better place to work. On the flip side, if people sense that they can bring their whole selves to work, and be treated with trust and respect, they're much more likely to stay.

Avoiding conflict. It's more common that we'd like to admit. Next time you're considering whether or not to address an issue, ask yourself: Is the benefit of feeling better right now worth the potential costs I'll pay later?

What are other costs for leaders avoiding conflict? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.