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Why avoiding conflict at work is a sign of a bad leader

When I worked as Head of Marketing at a technology firm, I was part of a team where disagreeing with the boss was never an option. Let me explain. Our team meetings consisted of our boss talking most of the time. During the short window of time where the rest of the team was allowed to speak, any idea that was contrary to our boss' opinion was immediately discarded. One time, I shared an idea in our team meeting and my boss made fun of it in front of the group, without explaining why she was against it, she laughed and then moved on. Another time, during a team meeting, when I disagreed with my boss about her point of view, she hung up on me. Leaders who avoid conflict send a message that new ideas are not welcome and that everyone should follow blindly all management decisions. Conflicts and disagreements are a normal and healthy part of working together. As much as conflict is uncomfortable, it is good for the organisation, for managers and for the people. In fact, conflicts — when managed well — have many positive outcomes. Here is why.

Everyone is worse off when leaders avoid conflict

Avoiding conflict in a team has many negative impacts on the team members, the team and the organisation. Here are some of the most negative effects of avoiding conflicts in a team:

1) Team communications becomes tense:

When a conflict or disagreement is ignored, both parties will resent each other and will either avoid communicating or communicate in a superficial way. Overtime, the entire team will suffer from a deteriorated communication where team members either do not share all the information with each other, or only share partial information and stop listening to opposing views.

2) Collaboration deteriorates:

As team communication becomes tense, collaboration worsens as well. Team members stop working together towards the same goal but instead work independently to carry individual goals and the team no longer operates as a unit. This causes more friction in the daily operations and every project becomes more complicated.

3) Productivity decreases:

When conflicts are avoided, team communication and collaboration deteriorate quickly, leading to much lower team productivity. Since the team no longer works together towards the same goal but individuals work towards their individual goals, any team project is impacted. Every aspect of a team project becomes a bottleneck, where delays, missing data, lack of support become the norm. This leads to delayed projects, inaccurate data and poor business outcomes.

4) Customers experience bad service:

Whether the customer is external or internal, the customer experience will inevitably deteriorate as a result of the team’s avoidance of conflicts. As resentment increases in the team, and as each team member no longer collaborates well with the group, the outcomes are impacted, which is felt by the customer. The team performance is either too slow, incomplete, or lacks clarity and the customer experiences a deteriorated service quality overall.

5) Good people leave:

Team members who have the right skillsets and the right attitude become tired of the negative and toxic team culture overtime and look for better jobs elsewhere. Turnover becomes higher in the team and team morale becomes worse. Employee engagement becomes worse as well.

Avoiding conflict is a grave mistake that prevents teams from working well together. The mistake of blocking disagreements can have devastating impacts on the people, the team and the entire organisation. To learn more about the common mistakes to avoid with diversity and inclusion, get this free guide: 7 Deadly Mistakes to Avoid with Diversity.

What leaders should do instead

1) Host inclusive meetings

Monitor who speaks in meetings and who does not speak. When someone is interrupted, interject and say you’d like to hear them finish. If you notice that someone is struggling to get into the conversation, say you’d like to hear their point of view. If you notice a repeat offender who interrupts frequently, pull them aside after the meeting and point it out to them. You could also nominate a gatekeeper to keep the conversations on track. Observe people dynamics. During meetings, some people might ask off-topic questions to test the presenter, undermine their credibility or authority and make themselves look smarter in the process. It’s a power play and can be incredibly distracting. Women don’t owe a response to off-topic questions from men or anyone else. Marginalised people shouldn’t have to defend themselves from disruptors who feel the need to minimise their credentials. You can be on the lookout for these kinds of questions and shut them down. Assess who is listened to.

Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University who studies how men and women speak, found that many of the inequities in meetings can be boiled down to gender differences in conversation styles and conventions. If you want to host inclusive meetings, make sure that you pay attention to who is listened to. Amplify and advocate those who need support in meetings;

challenge yourself to notice and take action when interruptions happen; take note of how attendees speak in meetings and moderate speaking time if needed. Evaluate who gets the credit. Try to repeat ideas from people from previous meetings. Show respect and help them create credibility by saying out loud that you learned from them. Give credit to the project owner even if they aren’t in the room. You can use your voice to stop ideas hijacking and cultivate a culture of credit in your meetings. Amplify and showcase ideas from people marginalised around you. To find out more about how to host inclusive meetings, read “Boost inclusion with this one surprising step: look around the room”.

2) Give equitable feedback and coaching

Women and non-white people receive less actionable feedback and coaching opportunities compared with their counterparts in the majority. Researchers by Harvard Business Review found that women tend to receive vague feedback. The research uncovered some big differences in the feedback given to men versus women: women were less likely than men to receive specific feedback tied to outcomes; this was true both for praise and constructive feedback; by contrast, men were offered a clearer picture of what they were doing well, how their performance was impacting the business and what they needed to do to get promoted. The study also found other gender differences in performance reviews, specifically in language.

When women were praised they were twice as likely to receive feedback on team contributions versus individual accomplishments which could hold them back during performance calibration and promotion discussions. Leaders should make sure they are providing equitable feedback to all their team members.

They should also coach all team members in an equitable manner. When leaders give equitable feedback and coaching about how to share their disagreements in the group, they demonstrate that they proactively encourage and welcome disagreement by providing feedback and coaching on how to do so in the group. To learn more about how to coach and mentor your team members effectively, watch 3 Ways Mentoring Fosters Inclusion (And Why It's So Successful!).

3) Do not confuse disagreement with meanness and explain it to your team

Many managers are afraid of conflict because they don’t want to hurt people’s feelings or to be perceived as the bad guy. The reality is that most people are open to listening to a different perspective when it is well argumented. Understand that the risk of hurting someone’s feeling is much lower compared to the risk of creating a team that is resentful because people can not voice their opinions.

Most importantly, make it clear with your team that you encourage healthy conflict and disagreement because you want to get to the best possible outcome and this can only be achieved when every opinion is being heard, weighted and discussed within the group.

Even better, if you write down the expectations of healthy conflicts and disagreements in your team, you will reinforce that you truly expect to hear push back, disagreements and healthy conflicts in your team. To find out more about how to be a more inclusive leader, read Inclusion: the ultimate secret for an organization’s success.

Conflicts, disagreements and debates are a healthy and necessary part of being in a group. Especially at work, these disagreements should be strongly encouraged in order to create an environment where everyone feels that their voice is valued. In order to be a good leader, you must build trust and psychological safety and genuinely encourage healthy conflict in your team so that you, your team and your entire organisation can benefit and work in a more inclusive environment

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