Have you ever dealt with someone who seems to run away from conflict? Working through a conflict when someone is confrontation-avoidant can be challenging. Add to that that the person who avoids conflict is your boss. Now it is doubly challenging! On its face, this case study is about dealing with a boss who continually redoes your work. But on a deeper level, it is also about how to overcome conflict avoidance. We’ll share several thoughts that should prove helpful if you ever find yourself in a similar predicament.
Dana has been a successful regional sales manager for her company. Four months ago, she was assigned to work for Janet, a business development senior vice president. Together, they are responsible for developing new business proposals for potential clients.
With Janet’s approval, Dana takes the lead in organizing information and writing drafts of the proposals. Janet has seemed happy with Dana’s work, giving positive feedback. But Dana has noticed a trend in working with Janet. Each time a proposal has neared completion, Janet has taken over Dana’s work and prepared the final version herself, often with considerable rewriting and reorganizing.
Janet has stayed after hours to make these changes or waited until Dana was away from the office. Yet, she has dismissed the idea that she’s dissatisfied with Dana’s work, frequently saying things like, “Oh, it’s fine. I just gave it a few last-minute touch-ups,” or “I could see you were busy, so I thought I would take it off your plate.” Except that Janet has done more than merely give proposals a final polish. Dana believes that Janet is sugarcoating the truth.
Dana feels that Janet is not being candid and wants to discuss how to change this pattern of behavior. How can Dana use Q4 skills in a meeting to overcome her boss’s Q3 tendency to gloss over what appears to be an unstated dissatisfaction with Dana’s performance?
How to Stop Avoiding Conflict
In essence, then, there are two problems for Dana to solve:
- How to get Janet to quit redoing Dana’s work.
- How to have a productive discussion about this issue and not have her boss gloss over the issue.
The second problem is the bigger one. If Dana can have a productive discussion with her boss, she can also get to the bottom of the first issue. The question of how to overcome conflict avoidance is the key.
Dealing with a Conflict-Averse Boss
Dana has to strategize with two facts in mind:
1) Janet has a Q3 reluctance to discuss dissatisfaction with Dana’s work,
2) Janet is Dana’s boss. Dana owns the problem. So, she must plan the goal of the meeting carefully and develop benefits for Janet that will gain her participation in solving the problem.
Don’t Dwell on the Past
It would be unproductive for Dana to try to show that Janet’s past behavior has been unfair or demoralizing. Janet may simply shrug off these ideas in a Q3 manner. Or, if Dana is insistent (a common misstep), Janet may feel cornered and react with Q1 hostility. In fact, Janet’s Q3 behavior may be masking a Q1 dismissive viewpoint that prompts her to take over because she feels her own proposal writing is superior to Dana’s.
Look Forward–What does the Boss Want?
Dana should look to the future by stating what she wishes to accomplish — to learn what Janet wants in a proposal. That way, the two will work together more efficiently. She might say, “Janet, I would like to look at how we approach these proposals so that I’m more on target when preparing the next one.”
Show Your Boss What’s In It For Her
Dana can offer this benefit to Janet: “If I can better understand what you feel makes a proposal the best it can be, I can get closer to meeting that standard. This will be more productive, saving you from spending so much time revising my work.”
This approach can ward off a Q3 casual dismissal of Dana’s concern. She can state a secondary benefit if Janet has Q1 ego needs: “It will help my professional growth to learn your process and how you think when putting these proposals together.”
What Causes Conflict Avoidance
You may be wondering, “Why is the boss conflict avoidant?” Does she fear conflict?
As you may recall from psychology class, Maslow posits a hierarchy of needs and that people seek first to fill the lowest level of unfulfilled needs.
When someone smooths over conflict and shoves disagreements under the rug, it often indicates that the person has strong social needs. They don’t want to discuss conflict, as disagreement is uncomfortable, and people may not like it. They would rather focus on happy things, make friends, and have a good time.
This does not mean you cannot productively discuss conflicting views with them. But you should expect resistance and smoothing things over. You need to probe agreement to make sure it is genuine and not lip service to avoid conflict.
You should also look for ways that getting what you want will meet their social needs and benefit them. For instance, pointing out above that Janet would have to spend less time revising Dana’s work implies that Janet will have more time to spend on more pleasant activities, meeting Q3 sociability needs.
Dealing with Confrontation Avoiders – In Conclusion
How to overcome conflict avoidance? By framing the meeting constructively, Dana will have a better chance of getting the topic out on the table and gaining Janet’s receptivity to talk about it. This, in itself, will go a long way toward solving the problem.
Your Next Steps
Now that you have learned how to overcome conflict avoidance, here are three next steps for your continued leadership development.
If you want more leadership tips, visit our leadership learning page. You’ll find many tips on handling common leadership challenges, case studies, and more.
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Best of luck on your leadership development journey!