Eliminating the Costs of Conflict Avoidance

Some conflicts are hot—simmering with hurt feelings, gnawing suspicion, and verbal sparring. But most workplace conflict is cold. Resentments are clutched close to the vest, disagreements are quietly acted out rather than talked out, and mistrust is passed in whispers to third parties rather than confronted face to face.

According to our recent study, 95 percent of a company’s workforce struggles to confront their colleagues and managers about their concerns and frustrations. As a result, they engage in resource-sapping avoidance tactics including ruminating excessively about crucial issues, complaining to others, getting angry, doing extra or unnecessary work and avoiding the other person altogether.

But while unresolved conflict is never a positive thing among teams intended to collaborate, innovate and produce, our research revealed the ramifications of conflict go far beyond inconvenient. In fact, avoiding conflict is extremely costly.

In our poll of more than 600 people, we found that employees waste an average of $1,500 and an 8-hour workday for every crucial confrontation they avoid. In extreme cases of avoidance, an organization’s bottom line can be hit especially hard.

We found that a shocking 8 percent of employees estimate their inability to deal with conflict costs their organization more than $10,000. And one in 20 estimates that over the course of a drawn-out silent conflict, they waste time ruminating about the problem for more than 6 months.

What this means is that companies already financially impaled from the effects of the recession will be lucky to make any kind of recovery unless employees learn to effectively step up to and resolve conflict.

Fortunately, there are a few skilled individuals who know how to speak up and hold crucial confrontations with their colleagues. The research confirms this skilled minority wastes significantly less time complaining, feeling sorry for themselves, avoiding problems and getting angry. As a result, these people are significantly more productive and influential. Their success stems from a confidence and ability to hold others accountable to bad behavior as well as reach alignment and agreement around crucial issues.

The research speaks for itself. Clearly, one of the most costly barriers to organizational performance is unresolved crucial confrontations. It’s time leaders stop viewing interpersonal competencies as soft skills and start teaching their people how to speak up when they have concerns or frustrations with a colleague or manager.

The good news is that speaking up and resolving conflicts is a skill set anyone can learn and master. We’ve spent the last 30 years identifying the high-leverage behaviors demonstrated by the most skilled communicators. These people know how to speak up in way that is 100 percent honest and 100 percent respectful. As a result, they resolve concerns and solve problems without damaging their relationships.

Here are four tips for confronting your colleagues in a timely and effective manner demonstrated by the most successful communicators:

  • Confront the right problem. The biggest mistake people make is to confront the most painful or immediate issue and not the one that gets them the results they really need. Before speaking up, stop and ask yourself, “What do I really want here? What problem do I want to resolve?”
  • Rein-in emotions. We often tell ourselves a story about others’ real intent. These stories determine our emotional response. Master communicators manage their emotions by examining, questioning and rewriting their story before speaking.
  • Master the first 30 seconds. Most people do everything wrong in the first “hazardous half-minute”—like diving into the content and attacking the other person. Instead, show you care about the other person and his or her interests to disarm defensiveness and open up dialogue.
  • Reveal natural consequences. The best way to get someone’s attention is to change their perspective. In a safe and non-threatening manner, give them a complete view of the consequences their behavior is creating.

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