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Conflict Avoidance

by David Brock on January 21st, 2013

You’d think I shouldn’t have to write a sales blog post about “Conflict Avoidance,”  yet I feel compelled to do so.  In writing this post, I feel a little like Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gecko character in the original “Wall Street.”  Instead of proclaiming “Greed is Good,” I feel like proclaiming Conflict is Good–that is, conflict properly handled is good.

Yet, too often, in our organizations and with our customers we avoid conflict.

I sit in hundreds of meetings every year.  The meetings are conflict free–to the point of being incredibly boring and a waste of time.  Now understand, I’m not advocating conflict for the sake of conflict, but I’m talking about the legitimate exchange of different ideas and points of view.  But I see absolute avoidance of this–imagine this–the absolute avoidance of exchanging differing ideas and points of view!  This is incredibly damaging to the organization and the people involved.

Imagine an organization where there is no disagreement–no difference in opinion or ideas.  How will the organization learn, improve or change?  Are they blissfully unconscious of what’s going on around them?   Or perhaps people don’t disagree–simply because they don’t care.

What about the leader that will tolerate no disagreement?  Either with the leader or among the group.  It’s impossible to learn, it’s impossible to improve, it leads to failure–either of the leader or the organization (yet often the leader is not the victim of the outcomes).

Or the leader that seems to encourage different views, but always comes back to their own view as what’s done.

What about the organization in which there are meetings to discuss disagreements or different points of view, yet at the end of the meeting, people do what they wanted to do anyway.

Consciously or unconsciously, too many organizations avoid conflict–that is healthy conflict.

We see too many organizations that manage conflict in unhealthy ways–finger pointing, a constant search for and the assignment of blame, usually toward others.

Or we see “opposing camps.”  Organizations in which groups are solidified in their disagreement, but not seeking to resolve them, ending up working at cross purposes.

Or we see the worst–disagreement expressed in personal attacks–attacks on the person rather than differences in  ideas and approaches.

Conflict and confrontation can be good.  They enable us to explore different ideas, approaches, or points of view.  They allow us to change, grow and improve.

Yet most organizations are very bad in dealing with conflict and confrontation–they either avoid it, hiding their collective heads in the sand or deal with it in unhealthy ways.

We’re bad in handling differences with customers.  We’re afraid to discuss those differences, after all “the customer is always right.”  But if they were right, why would we be there in the first place.  We’re trying to get the customer to change–vendors, approaches, the way they run their business.  It may not be they are wrong, but there are opportunities they are missing, or ways they might improve.

Conflict and confrontation, handled in healthy ways, can be good.  Dealing with conflict first requires trust between the people involved.   Without trust, there is no foundation to handle these differences well.  It requires vulnerability–meaning, we have to recognize that we may be wrong, we may have to change our positions, we have to accept someone questioning our views and positions.  It requires us to listen–not with an agenda, but openly to understand.

We waste a lot of time and opportunity avoiding conflict or handling it poorly.  We can be so much stronger if we leverage it in proper and healthy ways.

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  1. Bill Merkel permalink

    Great read David! I have struggled with this issue my entire career. Do you have any specifics on how to do this better. How would I know that I was both creating and and engaging in positive conflict?

    • Bill: It’s great to see you here! Thanks for the great question–it’s actually very difficult.

      I think one has to be cautious about being confrontive–particularly in an organization that does not understand or value this. You run the risk of being viewed as “difficult.” In some sense this is more of a cultural thing that has to be established and nurtured from the top down. Being open to differences in opinions, respecting them, having processes to resolve, come to agreement and moving on are critical.

      Having said this, I think as individuals, we can be more open and transparent in our discussions. We can invite, encourage, and participate in discussions where there are great differences in opinion. Listening, probing, explaining, being willing to shift positions–helping others do the same are great starting points.

      Much of this is probably organizationally and situationally dependent. Perhaps we should have a discussion soon 😉

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