I’m toying around with writing another book; a thought that creates simultaneous excitement and terror. Given that it’s been three years since You First came out, I thought I better ramp up slowly. I’m going to write a few posts that capture some of the ideas I might include in the book. Then I need your help to tell me whether they are interesting; relevant; compelling, persuasive, etc. So if you think the world could use another book, I would really appreciate your thoughts in the comments.

So what are you writing a book about, you ask? Oh, right, good question. The one idea that gets me fired up enough to contemplate writing 65,000 words is conflict. While there’s certainly too much nasty, debilitating conflict in the workplace, there is far too little of the healthy, productive conflict that organizations need to succeed. I believe the two are related. Somehow the fear of the ugly variety has generalized to an aversion to all conflict.

(And now I’m imagining a scale that measures good and bad conflict in your organization, much like you doctor would measure your LDL and HDL cholesterol. Hmmm…..)

The Cost of Avoiding Conflict

Are you conflict averse? Is your organization? If so, that conflict aversion is hurting your business, tearing apart your teams, and stressing you out in the process. The unwillingness and/or inability to raise and work through difficult conversations is leaving important issues hanging over you. That has many costly affects:

Decisions are too slow. Has your team started throwing around the word “agile” as the new silver bullet? It would be nice to think that your company or department or team is agile. It probably isn’t. That’s because the same difficult issues surface over and over again without being resolved. You envy the small, feisty disruptors of your industry and think their agility is due to size. But it’s equally due to their willingness to have conflict. To be fair, conflict is easier when you have nothing to lose. It’s harder, but even more vital, when you have everything to lose. If you can’t or won’t have conflict, you aren’t moving fast enough for today’s world.

Departments come unstuck. You might attribute the silos in your organization to poor communication. I bet that communication broke down because every time you communicated, there was an uncomfortable or contentious conversation. Who wants to communicate with someone that doesn’t agree with you? If you can’t control the process or the outcome, it’s just easier to retreat to your respective camps rather than doing the hard work of coming to a mutually agreeable approach. The result is that your solutions are fractured, implementation is slow, and the customer suffers because you can’t cope with inter-departmental conflict.

Trust erodes. When you hold onto negative thoughts and feelings about another person, team, or department without working to a resolution, you start to erode trust. Even the smallest indiscretion on the part of a colleague can sow the seeds of doubt. (In many cases, there was no indiscretion at all, only your perception of one.) If you had strong conflict skills, you would share the impact of the behavior and provide an opportunity to repair the damage before it’s too late. When you withhold your reaction out of a fear of the interaction turning to conflict, you start things on a downward course.

You stew. Conflict aversion has become so strong that you might choose to avoid conflict even knowing the high cost of carrying the hostility and negativity around unresolved. In an attempt to avoid a few minutes of discomfort in confronting the person with whom you have an issue, you sign yourself up for prolonged uneasiness, or worse. While your body was designed for short bursts of intense stress (like having a disagreement with a coworker) it suffers greatly from prolonged stress (like not being able to sleep on weeknights). You are weakening yourself by avoiding conflict.

The cost of personal, vicious, unproductive conflict is high. But avoiding all conflict for fear of unproductive conflict is a terrible idea. Our organizations need to learn to have productive conflict, for all our sakes.

Want more? Would a book on how to have healthy and productive conflict be valuable to you and your teammates? Please let me know in the comments.

Further Reading

Is Your Team Prepared for Conflict

Tools to Stop Passive Aggressive Behavior

Adam Grant vs Brene Brown: Two Truths are Better than One