One thing I try to teach all new (and many old) managers is the simple, somewhat counter-intuitive rule that conflict avoidance causes conflict.
Example: a manager has problems with an under-performing employee, but doesn’t tell them that their work is below expectations and they need to ship up. Over time the manager gets increasingly frustrated with the work quality and eventually fires the employee abruptly in a heated conversation.
The employee has no idea his work was sub-par, had been repeatedly reassured by his manager that things were OK, had received a solid annual performance review, and thus leaves the organization angry and confused. This results in a downstream lawsuit, with the company entering in a weak position because (due to the lack of dialog) there is little or no “paper trail” documenting the performance issues.
Now the company is looking at a legal battle that will cost or settle in the tens of thousands of dollars — if not more — all because a manager was too afraid to say “you write bad code” or “you run events poorly.”
And why did the manager never say these things? Because they were avoiding conflict.
This pattern happens over and over in business:
- Managers unhappy with supplier performance and simply cancelling a contract rather than trying to work together to improve service.
- CEOs and boards getting alignment and everyone being too polite to face the issue until it comes to a major boardroom blow-up.
- Directors quietly passed over for promotions for reasons they don’t understand until they eventually quit the company.
- Non-native English speakers getting glass-ceiling-ed due to their communications skills, but their manager is too afraid to put the issue on the table.
In each case, conflict avoidance results in  a lose/lose situation and  more conflict.
So to phrase a slightly longer version of my rule: conflict aversion leads to pressure build-up which leads to explosive conflict.
Why does this happen so often in Silicon Valley?
- In general, we are all taught to be nice as we grow up (e.g., “if you haven’t got anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all”). Many people have trouble adapting that principle to the workplace.
- Silicon Valley is full of introverted math and science types who enjoy working on hard conceptual problems but who, for the most part, would rather have a root canal than sit down with someone to discuss a conflictual situation.
Overcoming this isn’t easy. Hard as it may be to believe, I used to be “nice” myself. But then I realized that being nice wasn’t actually being nice, it was being conflict averse, avoiding tough situations to the detriment of both parties until things come to a typically explosive ending.
Most of the articles you’ll find on the web about work conflict are about peer-level conflict, such as this nice write-up on UC San Diego’s HR site. But the most dangerous avoided conflicts are those between manager and subordinate, where the manager simply abdicates the responsibility for doing his/her job. Over time, this will cost someone their job — either the manager for failing to manage, or the employee, often in what he/she perceives as a blind-side attack.
Here’s a nice Harvard Business Review blog post on giving negative feedback that any conflict-averse manager should read. If your problem runs deeper, then you should read Difficult Conversations, an excellent book in its own right but also one with a title that provides part of the job description of any senior executive.
What do CEOs do for a living? I’d argue three things:
- They inspire people around an organizational vision. (Read The 5 Levels of Leadership.)
- They make important decisions. (Read Winning Decisions.)
- They have difficult conversations. (Read Difficult Conversations.)