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How to Cope with a Boss Who Avoids Conflict


When tortoises feel threatened, they retreat into their thick shells to safely wait out the potential crisis. But what happens when managers use that same strategy in the workplace?

Everything seems to make them feel backed into a corner. Not just the metaphorical 18-wheeler barreling down the highway in their direction, but any hint of possible conflict:  opposing viewpoints, tough conversations, anything that challenges the status quo. Without a doubt, working for a chronic conflict-avoider can be difficult on many levels.

The Profile

Do you work for a boss who avoids conflict at all costs? Here are some typical traits found among those types of leaders:

  1. They avoid confrontations and hope problems will go away

  2. They find excuses to avoid questions and requests for meetings

  3. They procrastinate making decisions until they are forced to act

  4. They struggle to provide constructive feedback

  5. They play “favorites” with those who allow them to stay in their comfort zones

  6. They give people too many chances rather than correct their errors early on

If those characteristics sound familiar, you might be working for a conflict-avoiding boss. Or maybe you’ve reported to one in the past. If not, there’s a good chance one is waiting for you in your future. The point is, there are plenty of them out there.

The Problems

When you work for a conflict-avoider, you pay the price in two key areas. First, these managers may not fight for your department or group with upper management. That puts you at a big disadvantage when it comes to getting the best projects, the required resources, or even reasonable deadlines. Plus, teams have no incentive to suggest new solutions or innovative ideas if they know the boss is completely unwilling to ruffle feathers within the organization. Without a champion for change, your team’s opportunities to shine on the corporate stage are severely limited.

Second, getting meaningful feedback about your individual performance from a conflict-avoider can be quite difficult. When your boss doesn’t have the courage to address problems and uncomfortable topics, you may be missing out on the exact input required to move your career forward. You also need a strong advocate to promote your skills and talents when it’s time to compete for promotions and awards. If your boss isn’t assertive, your career can suffer.

The Solutions

So what’s the best way to deal with conflict-avoiding bosses? I hope these five coping strategies will be helpful along your journey:

  1. Accept their people-focused mindset so you can interact with them more effectively. They fear offending others, losing harmony in the work group, and experiencing a loss of stability. Every choice they make is filtered by its impact on other people. Understand that and leverage it.

  2. Analyze your previous encounters with them. Try to identify specific reasons behind their push-back and avoidance in dealing with you. Did you come on too strong? Were you unprepared? Was your proposal too heavy-handed? How could your attitude or actions have been misinterpreted, given their perspective? What could you do differently in the future?

  3. Watch for clues about where they stand on key issues. They might not tell you directly, so listen very carefully to their word choices and watch for non-verbal signals. Take note of what they do—and what they don’t. You’ll need that context to align with their goals.

  4. Submit proposals that support their need to maintain control. Demonstrate that you have a solid plan, explaining concepts step-by-step and highlighting opportunities for smooth, seamless transitions. Strive for minor change and minimal upheaval.

  5. Carefully plan your conversations to infuse a cooperative tone. If you barge in and demand action, you can bet they will retreat inside their shells before you ever make your case. Instead, engage in calm dialog. Ask open-ended questions, especially if you sense they are being indecisive. Give them a few options, and let them choose. At the end of your conversation, summarize and ask for agreement on next steps. Volunteer to help move things forward, and suggest a time to reconnect and discuss the outcome.

Collaborating in a positive, non-threatening way is the secret to working for conflict-avoiding bosses. Yes, they will likely test your patience on many days. But it’s worth the effort for your career and professional success to implement a new strategy for your interactions. You can’t change them, but you can change the way you communicate with them to get better results.

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