Ron Ashkenas wrote a piece on conflict avoidance for the Harvard Business Review earlier this week. Conflict avoidance, together with its pernicious twin, embarrassment avoidance, is behind a lot of the dysfunctional behaviour in organisations. Most people will go to extreme lengths to avoid conflict and embarrassment; managers are no different.
Ron Ashkenas gives some great examples; I particularly liked this one:
One such conflict-avoiding company even asks project teams to run stakeholder “acceptance analyses” throughout the course of a project, in the hope that eventually everyone will get on board and the senior manager won’t have to directly tell anyone to cooperate.
How many times have I heard that; if we just explain it to people they’ll all get it in the end won’t they?
Usually, conflict avoidance strategies create complexity in organisations. Every time we shy away from confronting an issue head-on, we create that extra layer of ambiguity. A decision is fudged in a meeting so that everyone can go away with their chosen interpretation of what has been agreed. That means they can effectively do what they like and still claim to be doing what they agreed to do. Eventually, the ambiguity has to be reined in, so new controls and procedures are put in place and so it goes on.
I worked with one chairman who had some difficult issues to deal with and some violent disagreements between members of his board. His solution to the problem was to close down contentious debate by demanding more data and deferring the discussion until the next meeting. Eventually I realised that his plan was simply to talk out any conflict until his tenure as chairman had expired. It was a great strategy for managing the chairman’s and board members’ discomfort but damn all use to the company.
Another fascinating feature of conflict avoidance is that we avoid talking about it. To discuss conflict avoidance or embarrassment avoidance would, in itself, be uncomfortable. Therefore, we don’t just create strategies to avoid conflict, we create strategies to avoid talking about avoiding conflict.
This is most obvious in the stories we tell ourselves when we know we have bottled out of an uncomfortable conversation. “It wasn’t the right time to discuss it.” “It would have been inappropriate in an open meeting.” “I don’t think he’s ready to hear that message yet.” “I’m just giving him a chance to improve on his own.” And my personal favourite, “I’m keeping my powder dry until I’ve got some more data.” We create elaborate stories to tell ourselves that avoiding a conflict situation was the right thing to do. Sometimes the stories are so good that we begin to believe them ourselves.
And, of course, we don’t challenge other people’s stories because, if we did, they might challenge ours. That way we create a whole culture which avoids conflict, rationalises it, then colludes in a cover-up to deny the very existence of conflict avoidance. This is the pattern of behaviour that Chris Argyris called defensive reasoning:
Whenever human beings are faced with any issue that contains significant embarrassment or threat, they act in ways that bypass, as best they can, the embarrassment or threat.
Organizational defensive routines are actions or policies that prevent individuals or segments of the organization from experiencing embarrassment or threat.
Many organisational policies and practices are designed to protect people’s comfort and especially senior people’s comfort. Project management methodologies, bureaucratised performance management processes, change management, grading and reward structures, even MS PowerPoint - they all have their uses but they can very easily be manipulated to help managers to stay within their comfort zones, avoid conflict and rationalise away acts of craven cowardice.
Ron Ashkenas asks, “Is your culture too nice?” by which he means “Do people shy away from conflict in your organisation?” I have never worked anywhere where people don’t avoid conflict and that includes investment banks. All organisations, to an extent, suffer from conflict avoidance.
Tackling conflict avoidance is difficult but, if you are clever enough, being confrontational in a non-confrontational organisation can bring good results. You have to do it sparingly and pick your moments; if you don’t everyone else will label you a bully and gang up on you. But used wisely, confrontation can shake people out of their inertia and get things moving. Surfacing hidden conflict and then meeting it head on can also relieve tension that has been building up. Often, far from being seen as a bully, the manager who knows how to use conflict constructively is hailed as a ‘breath of fresh air’.
So what are the techniques for engaging in constructive conflict? Ron has a few at the end of his post. I have a few more but this post is already too long so I’ll save them for another day.