This is Your Brain on Conflict: Deconstructing Conflict in the Workplace

I spend my days providing virtual in-house employment counsel to companies all over the United States. My position allows me to observe work-place conflict across a wide range of industries and geographical locations. While most of the questions I field relate to compliance with employment laws, they also relate to something much more basic – fear of conflict.

Conflict Avoidance

Conflict is disagreement, but contrary to popular belief conflict does not always involve fighting. Conflict exists in any situation where facts, needs or fears pull people in divergent directions. When the disagreement is unpleasant, conflict elicits stress, which is a basic self-defense mechanism. According to Joshua Gowin, PhD, stress tells our brains one of two things: I’m hurt, or I’m about to be hurt. If we believe we’ve been hurt, we release adrenaline within seconds and cortisol within minutes, which causes us to become impulsive. Ever send that panicked email you instantly regretted? You can thank the one-two punch of adrenaline and cortisol for that. Moreover, even stress over an anticipated conflict activates our stress response, leading to that sick feeling that something bad is about to happen. We experience this anticipative stress in most long-term conflicts with peers; we worry about some harmful outcome that might happen—or not. The danger with stress caused by both immediate and anticipated conflict is that the worry itself can cause as much harm as the outcome – while you’re stressing over what might happen, your body is releasing adrenaline and cortisol as if you are actually in danger.

When stress lingers, cortisol levels remain chronically high. Chronically elevated cortisol levels are a telltale mark of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is also a hallmark of burnout. 

Cortisol, like many hormones, has an optimum range, and too much is a problem. When stress lingers, cortisol levels remain chronically high. Chronically elevated cortisol levels are a telltale mark of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is also a hallmark of burnout.

This physiological response explains why we avoid perceived conflict – it isn’t pleasant. However, while it’s human nature to avoid uncomfortable conflict with others, that tactic won’t work in the long term, particularly in the workplace.

Workplace conflict isn’t limited to the problem employee who can’t get along with anyone in the department. In my experience, conflict shows up all over the workplace, and even small conflicts are often a symptom of larger problems. Unfortunately, avoiding uncomfortable conflict can be costly. According to Joseph Grenny of VitalSmarts, every unaddressed conflict wastes about eight hours of company time in gossip and other unproductive activities. Additionally, conflict avoidance can lead managers and HR to ignore important workplace compliance issues. In short, conflict avoidance, is a compliance-killer.

I firmly believe in building a culture of compliance, where organizations understand that at their root, employment laws are about treating employees well. A good place to start in building a culture of compliance is to understand that even though people often shy away from it, conflict is actually normal and healthy. In fact, healthy conflict is arguably a vital ingredient to organizational success. Experts have found that the most effective teams are those in which members feel safe enough to disagree with one another. A culture where dissent is allowed, or even encouraged, can spur innovation, diversity of thought and better decision-making.

In other words, conflict can be a good thing, and avoidance and procrastination are the real problems.

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