When they talk about toxic company culture, most people imagine tyrannical managers, jealous colleagues, stalled career opportunities or jumbled communication. But let me tell you about the places I have found most toxic in my career – organizations where being nice is valued more than being knowledgeable or getting the job done. Places where superficial harmony is maintained at all costs and conflict is avoided like the plague.
But why, you would ask, do you think conflict avoidance brings toxicity? Isn’t it nice when we all get along?
For starters, conflict is inherent to the work environment. Organizations have limited resources, and there is inevitable competition for their distribution. In addition, different departments and groups have disparate priorities at times. And agreeing on which ones would prevail often is preceded by conflict.
Maybe now is a good time to explain that by conflict, I do not mean eye-scratching and hair-pulling. The productive workplace conflict does not get personal. It focuses on the opposing ideas, opinions or priorities and is let go after a resolution is found.
Constructive work conflict allows for the exchange of arguments and potential solutions to organizational issues and, if managed well, would end with a win-win result. Conflict avoidance always ends with lose-lose.
Conflict avoidance often occurs when the relationships between people are valued more than the quality of work or the work outcomes. But it does not have to be one or the other. I have had professional conflicts with some of my best work buddies, which has not affected our relationships.
Having an excellent professional relationship (or personal relationship at work) does not mean you have to agree on everything. Actually, having a team, department or organization which always agrees on everything is incredibly dangerous.
In teams where consensus is valued above all, people gradually (or sometimes very quickly) learn not to share ideas or opinions that may lead to disagreement. Thus you lose out on many potentially brilliant ideas. And foster groupthink.
Apart from missing out on constructive disruption and out-of-the-box thinking, conflict avoidance often prevents people from challenging bad ideas and behaviors. Pointing out the flaws in a statement, process or policy is a sure-fire way to start a disagreement. Therefore groups where conflict avoidance is the norm often produce subpar work.
Similarly, in organizations where maintaining peace is more important than results, the tolerance toward unprofessional behavior or underperformance is higher. People who are liked are valued more than high achievers.
Over time, the high achievers stop trying so hard or simply leave. If conflict avoidance is pervasive, it will also affect the hiring, bringing more likable people and fewer people that would challenge the status quo.
In essence, we could say that conflict avoidance stalls innovation and promotes mediocrity.
But not just that. When disagreement and conflict are shut down, covert cliques and toxic organizational politics flourish.
In organizational cultures which do not allow for open debate, the strongest argument or the best solution are often not the ones to win. The one that prevails is usually the one who has established most significant influence. Or the one who is the most brazen.
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This usually does not bode well for the company as people who spend the most time building their political alliances and influence spend the least time actually working. And are more likely to search for solutions that will help solidify their political status than help the team or organization.
Moreover, when the political climate changes and new power players emerge, the direction of the organization or the team will change. Once again, without discussion or dispute.
In other words, conflict avoidance endorses opportunists.
Evading disagreement often stems from fear. Fear that you will not be liked or will be ostracized. Fear for your job or reputation. Or simply fear that you will lose.
Conflict avoidance can have many faces, not all of which are very recognizable. It may display as passivity.
People who take that approach do not raise potentially contentious issues, even if that harms their team or the company. They distance themselves from situations that they perceive as potentially discordant. And they tend to always agree with those in power.
But I recently was made realize that conflict avoidance may have another, very different side (and that I am often guilty of behaving that way). It turns out that a great way to prevent conflict is to act in a very authoritarian and domineering manner.
Acting as if your argument is the only one that matters and your way is the only right way can be an efficient way to shut down all disputes. With just the same debilitating effects on your organization or team.
As leaders, we must have the courage to face conflict and fight for what we feel is right. But we also need to be brave enough to be open to the possibility that we might be wrong.
As a conclusion
Diversity is a topic that sits at the forefront for most organizations. But bringing in a diverse employee population means nothing if you do not allow for diverse opinions and approaches. And those often mean conflict.
So instead of avoiding conflict at the workplace, let’s learn how to manage it productively.
More to come in one of my following articles.
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