Conflict at work? Probably best to avoid it.

Here’s a tricky question for you.  Please take one of my metaphorical honesty tablets before you answer it.  If you can’t give an honest answer there’s not much point reading this article.  Here goes.

Is your organisation like so many others, where the preferred way of handling conflict is to avoid it?

If so, the chances are that you have picked this up from other people, and it has become your preferred conflict handling style, even though this may be very different to the style you use outside of work.

avoidAccording to Ralph Kilmann, co-author of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument,  conflict avoidance (a style of conflict handling which is low on both assertiveness and co-operativeness) is in the top 25% of raw scores in many organisations which use the instrument.

Those same people will score avoidance in the bottom 25% of their responses outside of work.

I can completely relate to this.  Conflict avoidance has been the prevalent style in the majority of the organisations/departments I worked with in my 30 years of working for an employer.  I first became exposed to it in a vivid way in my first illustrious job after university, working as a warehouse supervisor for a large drinks distributor.

drinksAll employees in the company were entitled to a take home allowance every month of 3 trays of cans of beer.  Lucky us.  One day an employee whom I shall call Ken Munro asked me if it was ok to collect his ration, and went off to collect it.  Five minutes later I spotted him from the other side of the warehouse wheeling out not 3 trays but 4 trays.  Shock horror!

I, the ever -keen and watchful young supervisor, was in no doubt that this needed to be confronted.  It appeared to be out and out theft in broad daylight, and it offended me at every level.  With my heart pounding with both fear and excitement, I immediately ran over to the warehouse manager’s office and told him what I’d seen, looking for his backup whilst I went and asked Mr Munro to explain himself.

Sadly this was not to be.  I was told in no uncertain terms that it would cause more problems than it was worth.  All sorts of excuses were thrown at me:  we might have to involve the police, could I really be sure, the men might go on strike (this was the early 1980’s), did it really matter as the depot was closing in two months’ time and Ken was going to be laid off anyway.

When I challenged this we conferred with the Office Manager for a second opinion, and I got outvoted.  End of discussion.  Feeling about one inch tall and as demotivated as you can get, I went back to work.  For a while I felt that the men could all help themselves to the beer as far as I was concerned.

I learnt a lot from that experience, not necessarily in a positive way.  I learnt that you can usually find a good excuse not to do the right thing, that keeping your head down is important, that you can’t assume that people you think of as leaders will always display leadership, and much else.  Looking back I think it shaped many of my early professional decisions, and held me back in many ways.

I use the TKI tool extensively on my training workshops, and can say with certainty that I see avoidance as a strong preference in businesses of all shapes and sizes.  Sometimes it takes a while for people to admit it, and they imagine themselves initially to be naturally Collaborative since this is what they assume is the correct way to be.  I have a few exercises which expose their true avoidance style, and we can then explore the implications for them and the business.

Interestingly it seems less prevalent in new hires, and is most pronounced at middle management level.  Only the other day I was coaching a Director who told me that in the survey he had completed he had portrayed himself as the hard-nosed outspoken leader he feels he is expected to be, rather than the sensitive, empathetic introvert he in fact is, because he feels he has to.  He is conforming to a stereotype, and as a result is not authentic or true to himself.  He is Avoiding and Accommodating:  letting other people have what they want at his own expense.

I find all this a little sad.  If we feel we have to conform, avoid the difficult conversations, and be someone other than who we really are the minute we walk through the door at work, it makes for a less fruitful work experience for ourselves, and means we carry on encountering the same old business problems which never get truly tackled.  It’s inefficient, stressful and demotivating.

No wonder that according to Gallup only 13% of workers worldwide are actively engaged in the business they work in.

No wonder stress levels are so high and productivity so low.

No wonder we all spend so much time moaning about “having” to do things we know are a waste of time.

No wonder our meetings are so unproductive, going over old ground, thinking we had consensus when we didn’t.

What can we do about it?  Are we all doomed?  No: there are ways to encourage people not to Avoid:

  • Make it OK for them to talk about things
  • Give them time to think in advance of talking about it (Avoiders are often Introverted)
  • Point out the consequences of not talking about it
  • Highlight the benefits of talking about it.

To thine own self be true.”  Thank you Shakespeare.  Easy to say, not so easy to do.

What’s your experience of this?




About Michael Brown Training

I'm a business skills trainer, facilitator and coach. I've been helping people to learn for 16 years, working all around the world on topics such as Negotiation, Conflict Handling, Sales, Leadership, Consulting and Personal Effectiveness. I'm an ENFP, constantly looking for new and inspiring things to do. I love my job for its variety and the stimulation I get from it, and spend most of my time seeing how far we can go with the subjects we work on in the training room. I've recently started a new venture in making video on how NOT to do things, which you can find at
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2 Responses to Conflict at work? Probably best to avoid it.

  1. Will says:

    Timely one for me. There is though, a need to pick the battles you know you can win and avoid launching into a fight on principle when both sides will face high costs from falling out. People are sometimes very short sighted when their interests do not align with what is ‘the right thing to do’. With the NHS in meltdown we are now seeing some professionals looking after their own interests at the expense of patients and the organisations they work in.


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