By Jim Wong, CPA | March 14, 2014

Many people simply do not like confrontation. It seems surprising to consider a hardened executive going out of his or her way to avoid clashing with others, but one study found that “avoiding confrontation” made the list of seven deadly sins CEOs are, not surprisingly, loathe to admit about themselves.

Avoiding conflict comes at a price. Issues don’t get resolved, big ideas don’t get heard, resentment builds, and — in a worst case scenario — you might lose a high profile client or customer.

As The Huffington Post reports, “The post-mortem on any business failure almost always reveals critical information went unaddressed because somebody was afraid to discuss it.

Now that would be a bitter pill to swallow.

Business relationship consultant, and CEO of Ferrazzi Greenlight, Keith Ferrazzi writes in a recent article for, “Conflict avoidance is one of the most common — and divisive — behaviors my company encounters at the companies we work with. Instead of dealing with differences of opinion and working collaboratively, people choke back what they think until the boss has left the meeting, or when they are alone with a clique of like-minded colleagues.”

So, as a leader, how can you work with your teams to ensure the dysfunction of rampant ‘conflict avoidance’ doesn’t begin to fester in your organization?

Ferrazzi lays out three simple steps you can take.

Put Everyone in the Same Boat
Go out of your way to clearly lay out your organization’s goals. Then, be sure each of your individual ‘business units’ understand that their goals must be the same. “The larger the firm and the more diverse its products,” Ferrazzi notes, “the less likely these are to be aligned — and the more likely competing goals are causing friction between employees.” Don’t allow ‘mini-kingdoms’ to develop within your various departments. Make sure all your teams are striving for the same results.

Separate the Person From the Problem
That’s all well and good from a corporate perspective, but what about if the conflict is more granular than that. Ferrazzi suggests stressing “the importance of keeping the focus squarely on the problem that the company or team is facing, rather than on the person who represents the other side in the disagreement.” He recommends coaching your team to figure out what the underlying causes of the conflict might be. “Are they worried sales will decline if they follow the course you’re proposing? Are they concerned customers will be angry? Do they fear their group’s reputation will suffer?” Once the issues are clear, you can then work towards a solution that takes everyone’s concerns into account.

Bring up Tough Issues
This is a difficult one. It’s very hard to have a conversation you know is going to lead to hurt feelings, or overall nasty reactions. It takes courage, and it requires buy in from the entire organization. Everyone, from the CEO on down, must be prepared — and committed — to allow for a safe environment where negative opinions can be shared (maturely), without employees suffering any ill-effects from their honesty.

As Ferrazzi sums up, “ … every team leader can take steps toward establishing a more honest — and supportive — culture. The potential upside in team cohesion and productivity is enormous.”

What about you? Do you encourage ‘safe’ conflict in your organization?

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