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How to Handle It When a Team Member Avoids Conflict

The fight or flight mechanism is a strong one. As tensions rise, some prepare to do battle. Others prepare to flee, avoiding conflict or even the possibility of it.

Sure, nobody really likes conflict. But as we discussed last week, healthy conflict improves team effectiveness and a best practice is for a team to actually mine for conflict. So if anyone is avoiding conflict, the effectiveness of the entire team is at risk. avoiding conflictTeam members can support each other by making conflict within the team "safe" enough for all to engage  in it.  That means the conflict can't be personal, prolonged or unproductive.

Furthermore, teams need to see the value of the conflict and build habits to ensure that all voices are heard.

Once these habits are in place, team members need to hold each other accountable for participating in healthy conflict and keeping it on track. If a team member gets hyper-competitive and escalates the conflict in unproductive ways, others need to intercede and help this individual re-focus on the team's objectives.

Likewise, if any member of the team is avoiding conflict, it's up to others to step in. Calling attention, gently, to the concrete examples of avoiding conflict may help this individual to realize how others are counting on him or her to participate in team discussions -- even those that become slightly uncomfortable.

What People Who Are Avoiding Conflict May Not Realize

You'll be doing this teammate a favor. He or she may not realize that avoiding conflict is actually escalating tensions and making others more uncomfortable.

Putting too much significance on conflict gives it disproportionate power in shaping our conversations. It's a conflict. So what? Conflicts are bound to happen. We can't agree all the time. In fact, we shouldn't agree all the time. Avoiding conflict is like avoiding sunlight. A little bit every day is good for you!

When a team member avoids conflict and signals discomfort, others feel they must tread lightly, too. Soon, unresolved issues become elephants in the room. The elephants get in the way of team objectives being achieved. The bigger the elephants get, the harder they are to deal with. Now the team has bigger obstacles than ever as they work toward their group goals.

Avoiding conflict can also hurt other members of the team. Without hashing out issues, individuals will proceed with partial information. Mistakes will be made. Team members who don't proactively help are doing more than avoiding conflict. They are inadvertently sabotaging their colleagues who were counting on them to contribute.

Help Your Teammate See the Consequences that Come from Avoiding Conflict

You'd want to know if something you did was harmful to the team. Don't contribute to the problem by avoiding conflict, too! Instead, demonstrate what a direct and respectful feedback conversation looks like.

Let your teammate know the benefits of healthy conflict. Put these benefits side-by-side with the damaging effects of avoiding conflict. Encourage your teammate to act on the impulse to support the team instead of the impulse to flee from conflict.

Recognize and support the early efforts your teammate makes to enter into the conflict. Remember, for some, even the mildest expression of disagreement or doubt is frightening. Be gentle as you seek to understand the new view being offered. Appreciate it and ask questions to consider it fairly and fully.

Even if you don't agree, celebrate the fact that the team has been enriched by this contribution. At a minimum, there is likely to be collective relief when members of the team no longer have to "walk on eggshells" to protect someone who is conflict-averse.

Over time, continue drawing out more and more from this individual. Set an expectation for full participation, even during team conflict.

Of course, you and others on the team will also manage conflicts so they remain healthy and productive. That way, everyone will see the value of conflict and fewer will be prone to avoiding conflict. As a result, the team will become increasingly effective.

If you'd like to know more about how to intervene in team tensions (maybe because someone on your team is avoiding conflict!), sign up for "Tackling Team Tensions", airing October 11 on BrightTalk. This session will offer examples and case studies about teams that needed to get back on track and what it took to get them there. You’ll get practical tips you can use to diagnose and address common issues that interfere with true collaboration and unity. Reserve your seat today!