Conflicts at work are stressful, and research suggests that the willingness to deal with issues directly is critical for managing conflict effectively. In contrast, conflict avoidance, which involves withdrawal, inaction or suppression of thoughts about a conflict, is usually considered to be less constructive. Recent findings challenge this perception, however, suggesting that for some people avoiding conflict may be as useful as confronting them.
A recent study presented in June 2011 at the International Association for Conflict Management conference in Istanbul, examined whether gender explains conflict avoidance patterns, and whether men and women experience different levels of emotional exhaustion when avoiding conflict.
The authors suggest that the reason for avoiding a conflict is different for men and women: “men appear to use conflict avoidance in order to choose their battles, whereas women appear to use conflict avoidance as a way to hide their feelings and thus cope with their anxiety about conflict”. The study found that for men, conflict avoidance was often beneficial since it led to a decreased level of emotional exhaustion – a break from the conflict. However, the results revealed that women are more likely to continue to be emotionally taxed when avoiding a conflict. The emotionality of conflict often does not dissolve when it is avoided and often continues to take its toll on female disputants. Therefore, women who avoid conflict in order to decrease their anxiety may experience a backlash – the negative byproduct of having to quash their feelings.
This study challenges the common understanding that avoidance is a poor strategy in conflict by showing that it can have both positive and negative effects. The authors suggest that both women and men should consider when and why they avoid conflict at work and whether conflict avoidance is ultimately beneficial or taxing in terms of their own health and well-being.
Bear, Julia, Weingart, Laurie R. and Todorova, Gergana, Can Avoiding Conflict be Beneficial? A Field Investigation of Gender, Conflict Avoidance, Emotional Labor, and Emotional Exhaustion (June 17, 2011). IACM 2011 Istanbul Conference Paper. Retrieved from SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1866524