The Price of Avoiding Conflict

Posted by & filed under Organizational Psychology.

We often hear about conflict management within organizations, and I don’t imagine it is something that will die down anytime soon.   Recently, the topic resurfaced when I got my own Conflict Management Style results from a Thomas-Kilmann Instrument (TKI).  It seems that my chief way of handling conflict (according to my own answers) was to use a strategy of “avoiding”  conflict, followed closely by “accommodating” and “compromising”.  A pleaser by nature, this wasn’t altogether a surprise, but seeing it in black and white was still a wake-up call of sorts.

What was interesting to me about my top two conflict styles I had was that both are “unassertive”.    When using avoidance particularly, it can make a conflict drag on, rather than allowing it to be resolved.  Avoidance does have advantages for sure. It reduces stress – in the moment – and saves time so I don’t waste energy. It also allows me to not provoke others. And, while this approach means the conflict may go away, when it does not, we are still dealing with a conflict for longer than necessary.

Knowing this, I would then prefer to use a balance of my personal conflict styles more often. Sometimes I will “accommodate” others to save relationships, other times I will “compromise” and name it.  But, finally, more often I will try to “collaborate” and bring my more assertive style to the conflict party.   I have never been great at “competing”, and so that will likely remain my least used style.

And, I know where my overuse of this approach comes from clearly. I have been surrounded by strong personalities my whole life, and I move to avoidance to “get away” and “put off”, rather than dealing with them head on. I need to pay attention in these cases – I know how to collaborate – and am good at it when I apply myself. I do it all the time with my clients.

So what have I learned?  When I use only one (or two) conflict styles, to a too great extent, the conflict builds up and then hits a crescendo.  I could save myself a lot of trouble if I show up more politely and transparently in a conflict.  I have fairly high scores on compromising and collaborating, and should use them more.

When dealing with clients, we are able to help them identify which conflict styles they favour at present, and what styles they are using most in their day-to-day work. Recently, with a client we found that she was using her least liked skills to deal with conflicts, to keep the peace within the organization. After our conversation she realized what this was costing her.  A competitor at heart, and quite assertive in her life elsewhere, she was often compromising and avoiding conflict and this did not sit well with her.  Since then, with coaching, she has resolved to try to act on these conflict items rather than avoid them. Although difficult, this effort is yielding better results.

What might be helpful to do rather than avoid a conflict?

My advice from my own learning, and what I do on my best days, is the following:

  • Be transparent about your views whenever you can, while remaining polite
  • Don’t try to get embroiled in conflict each moment of the day, but do pick your spots
  • Encourage discussion
  • Try out being a little more assertive if you are not naturally that way, it can be very helpful to speak your mind

I hope this blog gets you thinking about your own approach to dealing with conflict, and perhaps if you are part-avoider too, or a real competitor, you might remember to vary your style in future.

Thomas, K. (2002). Introduction to Conflict Management: Improving Performance Using the TKI. CPP, Inc.


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