Is It Dangerous to Avoid Conflict at Work?

Note: Conflict, or rather, the lack of conflict is a crucial theme for me right now, especially in the workplace. Enjoy! Previous installments of my weekly blog from 2013 are located on my website at http://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/.

Over the last couple of years, I've been on a vocal mission exploring the elements that contribute to stability within our work lives. I refer to this as core stability; a confluence of factors, such as psychological safety and the psychological contract that contribute to a robust work-life foundation. (Core stability also applies to organizations, where certain elements serve as a foundation for effectiveness.) This dynamic helps us to become (and remain) engaged and productive, even in the face of challenge and change.

Stability may seem an odd path, especially in the age of relentless innovation and digital transformations. However, for those of us who are troubled by enduring workplace problems, such as poor fit and lack of engagement, stability offers fertile ground.

When you consider the topics that affect stability, conflict — and more specifically the absence of healthy conflict — land on the short list. Clearly, feeling psychologically safe and sharing our thoughts are intimately connected. When we think back on conflict in our own work lives, we might recall the odd argument or the heated discussion concerning a project or client. However, those memories are only part of the conflict story. We must consider all of the moments where we failed to confront an issue. Instances where we hesitated because of the imagined aftermath. (Those "forward flashes" can resemble a work-life apocalypse.)

In the book, The Good Fight — team expert Liane Davey lets us know that avoiding conflict comes with a clear cost, something brilliantly named "Conflict Debt." Conflict debt is the accumulation of emotions and resentment that can occur when we fail to broach the topic. Davey leads us through the emotions that come with that dynamic, exploring the idea that when mastered — conflict builds both courage and confidence. She also explores the roots of why we feel the way we do about conflict. (Her personal conflict story is like so many of our own, laden with avoidance, fear, and judgment.)

There is an absolute hell that we quickly correlate with work-related conflict. In fact, this is often enough to relegate conflict into near oblivion at work. We should be doing the polar opposite of this — actually dancing with it.

"Normalizing healthy conflict" is the goal, Davey explains. I get it.

Ultimately, we sacrifice a bit of ourselves when we avoid conflict. We also negatively affect the strength and quality of our work. Primarily because unresolved conflict doesn't fully dissipate. Sadly, it festers and builds a life of its own.

Have you dealt with your conflict debt?