Fear of conflict

Do you have a fear of conflict?

Even senior managers, respond to conflict by being overly aggressive or avoiding
the situation. Both responses are bad for business because it reduces creativity,
productivity, efficiency and profitability; and, detrimentally affects relationships
(increasing levels of absenteeism and staff turnover while reducing morale).

Dennis, a newly-appointed manager is working in a large banking organisation. His
previous roles and resumé read impressively. Asked to present the strategic plan for
next year’s activity, his reputation as a highly-skilled manager will be put to the test.
Especially when he presents to those assembled – the bank’s marketing department
and advertising agency, the latter noted for their prowess in delivering presentations.

A brilliant strategist, Dennis knows he is a poor presenter – nervous before
an audience he avoids eye contact, shifts about in his position, makes mistakes in
reading the slides and talks down to people. Dennis doesn’t like presenting in front of
people at the best of times.

Under pressure to perform in his first big meeting, Dennis puts his general sense of
unease down to “presentation anxiety”. Yet deep down Dennis knows he lacks the
necessary skills to manage others through his presentation. If he chose to explore
his feelings in more depth, he might realise he’s afraid of being exposed, having
lesser skills than his reputation suggests.

Half an hour before the meeting, Dennis’ handouts are being printed when the printer
jams, slowing the process. Just then his boss pokes his head around the door, “All
set to present, Dennis?” he asks encouragingly.

Dennis clacks.

“How can I be expected to make a professional presentation if we don’t have the
equipment?! Why doesn’t someone fix this thing?!” he shouts, waving the few printed
notes about, having lost his temper… and perhaps his reputation forever.

Bully Boys act aggressively

An aggressive response shows as a fear of inadequacy to
manage the process.

When your reputation for competency is tested and judged
poorly, your real ability to manage the process is exposed.
What was once accepted as being true is now exposed as
flawed. Now others realise it, too.

The greater the difference between reputation and
competency, the bigger your feelings of inadequacy, resulting in, increased conflict.

Whereas, scaredy Cats avoid conflict
An avoidance response shows a fear of loss about potential outcomes.

Cindy, a 17 year old secondary school student, early one Friday night, high-spirited,
finishes the week by going out with friends. But not tonight. No, she is dreading any
thoughts of tonight. The phone rings and her mother answers it.

“Cindy,” she calls from the hallway, “it’s Cathy
to speak with you.”

She doesn’t want to go out with her friends because of Mark
– a new boy in the group, introduced by her best friend,
Cathy. He’s always making rude comments and looking at
her. Cindy is certain Mark will sit beside her at the mall later
and ask her out. “Yuck,” she thinks, “who would want to go
out with him?” But she doesn’t want to upset Cathy and her
companions by making a scene. Fearing an outcome worse than her current
situation, Cindy clacks. Feigning a headache, she declines the phone call and goes
to bed early.

From Cindy’s perspective, her current position (missing fun with friends)
is preferable to a potentially worse position (awkwardness with Mark, perhaps
creating a scene, or loss of reputation). This thinking prevents her engaging in
conversations and relationships around her. Rather than resolving the situation, she
chooses to avoid it, hoping the inevitable will just go away…

Two types of fear

In both cases, conquering fear is quite simple – Dennis and Cindy need to practise
and apply better conflict resolution skills to promote their point of view before
listening and responding appropriately.

If Dennis felt able to confidently promote his strategic plan for next year’s activity,
listen to questions and comment appropriately, he wouldn’t behave aggressively in
the lead-up to his presentation.

Dennis would benefit from less emotional explosions and some solid work in
presentation skills (to say nothing of Photocopier 101 Skills). If a few jammed notes
cause Dennis to lose control and overreact – and for many of us often it is the little
things – he risks damaging key relationships around him, his career, and his
company’s ability to leverage his remarkable mind.

If Cindy felt able to tell Mark his comments are rude and his advances unwelcome,
then listen and comment appropriately, she wouldn’t need to avoid future meetings
with her friends.

Jenny would benefit from an increased level of assertiveness to say what she does
and doesn’t want (… one of life’s many skills!)

To move beyond their states of anxiety, Dennis and Cindy must separate the issue
from the people.

For businesses, conflict is desirable when focused on the issue. Conflict is not
desirable when directed at the person.

Is personal warfare really necessary?

The examples of Dennis and Cindy typify the reactions of many who respond
with some degree of aggression or passivity in business conflict situations. Sadly,
these feelings and behaviours sometimes spill into your professional relationships
and personal lives with disastrous consequences. More effective people learn how to
manage their behaviours appropriately in the time between experiencing a feeling
and exhibiting a behaviour. This critical interpersonal skill – a matter of awareness
and discipline – means fighting with others is actually a choice, rather than being

The short answer to business conflict is to promote your point of view, listen and
respond appropriately.

“What are you afraid of?” need not apply to conflict any longer. And your business
will gain substantially by learning how to resolve conflict.

Suresh Shah, Managing Director, Pathfinders Enterprise

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