Avoiding a Conflict Debt at Work

Blog by Lorraine Segal

Conflict debts at work are hard to pay down

It is natural and human to want to avoid or dodge conflict at work or anywhere, but relying too heavily on avoidance can create a “conflict debt” that is very hard to “pay down.”

In Liane Davey’s excellent article, “ An exercise to help your team feel more comfortable with conflict,” (Harvard Business Review, March 14, 2019), she introduces the term “conflict debt” and discusses the problems which arise when leaders are so focused on creating a happy productive environment, that they become “conflict avoidant”.

In her words, “Conflict debt is the sum of all the contentious issues that need to be addressed to be able to move forward but instead remain undiscussed and unresolved.”

We are all happy here and we never disagree

Almost no one really wants conflict, but severe conflict avoidance easily becomes denial, and turning a blind eye to conflict that escalates or explodes if unattended to, creating a debt or deficit that is much more difficult to address effectively, and which leads to severe and unintended consequences.

It is human to have conflict

I have met a people from a few organizations that are so well run and treat all employees and management with such respect that they have very little conflict. But the vast majority of organizations and corporations I encounter have open or hidden conflict. The issue isn’t if they have conflict, but how they address it when it arises.

Neither authoritarian hostility nor denial work

In some organizations people “duke it out” with overt clashes, authoritarian fiats, or rule by yelling. And, that takes a huge toll of productivity, retention, workplace environment. But pretending the conflict isn’t there, ignoring it, or only addressing it in whispers doesn’t work either.

Eventually, either the denial breaks down and it can’t be ignored any more, or the organization simply becomes less and less effective, people leave and the bottom line and mission suffer. If the main goal is avoiding conflict, leaders aren’t engaging workers expertise through robust discussions about problems, nor are they making the tough decisions about what changes the organization needs

How can you pay down a conflict debt and become conflict competent?

This is one of the underlying questions we address in the Conflict Management certificate program I created at Sonoma State University. In the 12 week program we help students:

  • Bust their fears around conflict by normalizing it
  • Help them understand the value of well managed conflict.
  • Teach skills and a tool kit and practice for people to grapple with conflict more calmly and confidently.
  • Offer training to listen better, with curiosity instead of defensiveness.
  • Build empathy for how and why we see issues differently.
  • Let go of resentments and move forward.
  • Model everything they learn so as to help their teams and organizations.

When leaders and those who coach and mentor them learn these basic skills, they can create a “conflict solvent” organization that no longer carries a heavy burden of “conflict debt.”


Lorraine Segal

After surviving the 50's and 60's, as well as twenty years in toxic academia as a tenured professor, Lorraine Segal was inspired to started her own business, Conflict Remedy (ConflictRemedy.com), happily teaching, coaching, blogging and consulting around workplace conflict transformation. She is addicted to reading novels and enjoys walking and… MORE >

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