Fear Of Conflict

Posted January 24, 2013 by Kristi Royse in On the Ladder

Fear of Conflict

This is the second in a series (click here to view the first) of blog posts in which we talk about various facets of fear, how it impacts the workplace, and how (and why) we, as women in leadership roles, need to change fear into trust. Here we discuss fear of conflict.

Overcome fear of conflict by creating trust in the workplace

I believe the majority of us feel that we have effectively communicated what needs to be said, when we haven’t actually said anything at all. If we really get honest with ourselves, don’t we often just hope that our coworkers, leaders, employees, and others will pick up on the nonverbal cues we give them, and that what once was a problem will magically be resolved?

Why do we do this, when we know, deep down, it doesn’t work?

Because we are afraid of conflict.

Why Are We So Afraid?

I would venture to say that we as a society don’t know how to effectively handle conflict.

Some of us “deal” with conflict head-on, reacting immediately in adrenaline-fueled confrontations, while others busily try to “make nice” and sweep the conflict under the rug. I think we don’t know what it looks (and feels) like to face the discomfort of conflicts and have civilized, healthy, open discourse.

Think about this: As children we were taught not to fight or argue, and not to disrespect or “talk back to” authority.  While this may have been a good foundation to start out with, we were also not taught strategies for dealing with real issues in a constructive manner. All of which leads to fear of conflict as adults.

Benefits of Engaging in Healthy Conflict

The thing of it is, though, we desperately need to engage in healthy conflict in the workplace. When confrontations are respectful, open and honest they can be considered “healthy conflict.”

Healthy conflict:

  • has at heart the best interests of all parties involved
  • never becomes personal
  • creates space for growth
  • minimizes animosity
  • maximizes understanding

So why is healthy conflict necessary? Teams that have healthy conflict:

  • are more engaged
  • create & innovate more
  • discover & explore the ideas of all team members
  • solve real problems quickly
  • minimize politics
  • are more efficient

Leaders must be willing to engage in and promote productive conflict. The best leaders are very often the best listeners. They have an open mind; they are not interested in having their own way but in finding the best way. Healthy conflict provides an opportunity to discover the “best way”.

Confronting key issues from a perspective of mutual respect benefits all parties involved as well as the company as a whole.

Unlocking the Key to Healthy Conflict: Trust

I believe trusting relationships are essential for healthy conflict.  When there is trust, people are not afraid to say something for fear it will be the wrong thing, ask hard questions, correct problems and clear up misunderstandings.

On the other hand, when trust is lacking, people:

  • get defensive
  • let problems go unresolved
  • feel like their opinion doesn’t matter
  • are disengaged
  • feel less responsibility for what goes on within the company

Creating trust may be difficult, however in the long run it will be well worth the effort.  In “Engagement is Not Enough” Keith Ayers suggests the following are needed to create a high-trust environment:

Reliability – Leaders and coworkers follow through on their promises, keep commitments, and meet expected standards.

Acceptance – Everyone needs to be respected and valued. Let people know they are accepted and a valued member of your team just the way they are.

Openness – Willingness to give and receive feedback, voice concerns, and be vulnerable.

Congruence – Be truthful; say what you mean and mean what you say. Show integrity in every situation.

Taking proactive steps to incorporate these four elements of trust into your workplace sets your company up for an environment that encourages healthy conflict.

What can you do as a leader to increase trust in your workplace?  Is conflict embraced or feared in your office?  Why do you value conflict?  What are some benefits you have seen from healthy conflict?

About the Author

Kristi Royse

Kristi believes that leaders create success by inspiring their people to greatness through vision, communication, trust and teamwork, and that female leaders are uniquely positioned to develop this greatness in themselves and others. CEO of KLR Consulting, Kristi is a nationally-recognized speaker, executive coach, facilitator, management consultant, and trainer. Since 1987, Kristi has been coaching executives to be stronger leaders and helping organizations optimize their most vital resource - people.