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Conflict is a performance management issue that needs to be addressed, not ignored

To some, conflict avoidance might sound like a good thing. So many of us naturally avoid conflict in one way or another, but there is a difference between creating a healthy environment wherein conflict is rare, and avoiding conflict when it presents itself. The former is a wise HR move; the latter is a mistake that comes at a high price for companies.

Many employees want to be seen as pleasant and easygoing, so much so that they do anything to avoid a fight. They do this with all the good will in the world, but unfortunately, these employees can be just as responsible as aggressive colleagues when it comes to creating a negative working environment. When we avoid conflict, we aren’t able to address concerns that need addressing, work comfortably in our environment, or improve existing processes in a healthy manner.

The negative side-effects of conflict avoidance are often high turnover, a dysfunctional working environment, strained communication, a loss of productivity and impaired teamwork. Your company reputation will also suffer, making it all the more difficult to recruit top performers in the future. For these reasons, conflict avoidance is a performance management issue that all HR execs should address.

Organisations will not be able to succeed in the long term without addressing conflict head-on. The ability to recognise conflict — and to make steps towards resolving it — will be a huge benefit to any company. To do this, we must first understand the different forms that conflict avoidance takes.

1. Simply ignoring the issue at hand

A common form of conflict avoidance is to simply deny there is an issue at all. As an example, two colleagues might disagree regarding an approach to a particular problem. Both feel passionately about their solution and yet, rather than insisting they explore the pros and cons of each avenue, one party simply backs down and refuses to assert themselves. They might have a legitimate argument and refraining from honest discussion does nothing for the company and progress.

Another example might be if one employee feels they are the victim of workplace bullying, but doesn’t take the initiative to discuss it with their manager or HR. They might insist they are fine and there is no problem, but as the root cause isn’t being addressed, they will ultimately suffer from a loss of morale and productivity.

2. A change of conversation

Another form of conflict avoidance is side-stepping. This is a diversionary tactic and a surefire way of ensuring no issues ever get resolved, as whenever a particular issue is brought up, the employee in question changes the conversation or raises other, unrelated issues.

For example, during a one-on-one performance discussion, a manager might ask an employee about their goal progress and why they haven’t been able to hit their targets for a particular objective. In response, the employee might derail the conversation to discuss a completely unrelated matter, or raise tangential issues that don’t progress the conversation.

3. Complete withdrawal from the situation

This is a common form of conflict avoidance, particularly for introverts. When difficult or adversarial conversations present themselves, the employee might appear to close down. People who use this coping strategy often feel their approach is beneficial, as they aren’t being outwardly aggressive. However, a silent approach can be just as damaging in the long run, as they are failing to address the issue at hand.

This approach of complete disengagement means nothing of value is being contributed. They are likely waiting for the storm to pass, but in all likelihood, if a particular topic is at all anxiety-provoking, they won’t be inclined to visit it later, even when emotions have died down.

How to avoid conflict avoidance in your organisation

It is clear that from a performance management point of view, conflict needs to be addressed. Employees need to feel valued and listened to, and companies must handle conflict in a structured way. This needs to happen through open, honest communication and a frank exchange of ideas. Employees should be able to voice their opinions and concerns, without fear of being placed in the firing line. This is where HR can step in. The HR department needs to offer services to help resolve pressing issues in a calm, relaxed space.

In the long run, companies should work towards minimising conflict through clarity and transparency. Organisations should develop clear company objectives and articulate the company’s vision to their team. This will help to get employees united, engaged and driven to accomplish it. When employees have a firm idea of what they are meant to do and the direction they are heading in, conflict becomes less ubiquitous, as everyone is working towards the same goal.

For this reason, HR should implement regular employee manager check-ins, where both parties can set expectations, discuss SMART objectives and raise any areas of concern. This will help to create a culture of direct, fluid communication, while demonstrating to everyone involved that their opinion is respected and valued.

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