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Reframing Conflict: from Evade to Engage


When it comes to dealing with the uncomfortable things in life—fears, threats, stressors—our “fight-or-flight response” is often triggered. We hear this phrase a lot, but it is indeed a real physiological phenomena; something deep in our nervous system that urges us to either prepare for battle (fight) or flee the sticky situation (flight).Conflict, especially in the workplace, is certainly one of those uncomfortable parts of life. Yet with workplace conflict, it seems that most people choose to simply avoid or delay. We’re talking about a “no-fight-only-flight response” here. To most of us, catching a cold or losing your keys sounds preferable to addressing conflict with a coworker. Why? Because conflict stirs up emotions that we would much rather not feel in the workplace; it makes us feel anxious, it makes us feel angry, and it makes us feel vulnerable. Finding a productive way through these emotions at work is not only a challenge, but it can also be quite painful. It’s no wonder so many of us avoid these interactions at all costs.But the consequences of conflict avoidance in the workplace are very real. In her Fast Company article, psychologist and business strategist Liane Davey shares her perspective of where people get conflict all wrong. “Conflict isn’t bad for organizations: it’s fundamental to them.” And daily avoidance can add up to dangerously high levels of something she calls conflict debt.

“Conflict debt is the sum of all the contentious issues that we need to address to move forward, but remain undiscussed and unresolved,” Davey writes. “It can be as simple as withholding the feedback that would allow your colleague to do a better job, and as profound as continually deferring a strategic decision while getting further and further behind the competition.”

Put simply, unacknowledged conflict presents a huge barrier to organizational success. When people avoid the disagreements that make products and processes better, progress stalls, and performance suffers. And in today’s fast-paced work environments, organizations cannot afford to stall. This barrier not only impacts goals and the bottom line; it also impacts organizational culture, which in turn affects employee morale, engagement, and retention. That’s a lot of fallout just from conflict debt. So, how do we arm people and organizations with the tools to effectively engage in conflict rather than avoid it at all costs? How can we combat our knee-jerk, instinctive inclination to evade?

To answer this question, we should first acknowledge a commonly accepted fact: Human behavior is incredibly complex, and when it comes to conflict, each one of us experiences it in a different way. Some people feel that conflict, even in the workplace, is always a direct personal attack, resulting in long-lasting hurt feelings. Others see conflict as their competence being called into question, so they immediately go on the defensive. Shifting our conflict approach from evade to engagerequires a thorough, personalized approach.

One way to jumpstart this shift within an organization is by acknowledging the work style differences that needlessly put distance between people (“Why is she so blunt?” or “Why is he so skeptical?”) to make room for more productive conflict aimed at solving business problems. Everything DiSC’s latest solution, Productive Conflict, offers organizations a way to do just that. It’s important to note that Everything DiSC Productive Conflict is not a conflict resolution tool. Rather, Productive Conflict offers personalized insights that deepen self-understanding to turn destructive behaviors into productive ones, ultimately improving workplace relationships and results. Using the DiSC® model, participants will get a sense of their behavioral priorities or tendencies during conflict. Here are some examples:

While the infographic above offers a high-level introduction to each style’s behavioral tendencies in conflict, the Everything DiSC Productive Conflict application uses an adaptive assessment to deliver a personalized profile that goes deeper, uncovering your specific priorities during conflict. Learning about your own behaviors, along with those of other styles in conflict, is like gaining access to your own personalized conflict compass, helping you navigate all sorts of conflict situations. Everything DiSC provides a framework for behavioral understanding, and serves as an easy point of access for opening the door to engaging in conflict rather than avoiding it. 

“When you’re unwilling to work through uncomfortable situations, you’re stretching your resources thin, stifling innovation, and allowing risks to go unnoticed,” Davey explains. “On your team, the aversion to prickly conversations forces strong performers to compensate for weak ones and mature people to put up with immature ones. At an individual level, you’re probably burning out from the stress.”

We agree with Davey. What seems like harmless avoidance or the path of least resistance usually ends up having major consequences for everybody in the long-run. As we discussed in our last post, companies truly cannot afford to overlook social and emotional skill development in their employees. This is where Everything DiSC Productive Conflict proves to be a truly valuable resource to teams and workplace cultures.

We see your “fight-or-flight response” and raise you a “this-is-uncomfortable-but-important-so-let’s-work-through-it response”. Okay, it might not roll off the tongue as nicely, but your organization’s culture will benefit from the change. Because when you make conflict feel approachable and actionable, you improve the likelihood of transforming it into something productive. This is how we begin to make the crucial shift from evade to engage.

Everything DiSC®, with its award-winning Authorized Partner network, is a global leader in delivering personalized, soft skills learning experiences that have an immediate and lasting impact on the performance of people and cultures of organizations.

To learn more about how Everything DiSC® Productive Conflict can help your organization more effectively navigate conflict in the workplace, connect with Laura A. Davis and Associates. Email me today at laura@lauraadavis.com.

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