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Are You a Conflict Averse Boss?

Avoiding addressing misconduct in the workplace is a great way to ensure it continues

Posted by Dr. Pat Pitsel on August 7th, 2012

Are you the type of person who would be described as “conflict averse?” That is, whenever there is something to be corrected, or when an argument appears to be starting, you head for the hills, immediately cave, and give in to the other person’s demands, or try to smooth things over so that everyone gets along?

Are you the kind of boss who treats some employees with kid gloves because they become unpleasant when they don’t get their way? Are you the type of employee who picks up far more than her fair share of the work in the office because you can’t say “no” to your boss? Are you the poster child for those who are victims of emotional blackmail?

If this describes you, then you need a sign on your desk – a discreet post it note, perhaps, that reads: We teach others how to treat us. Variously attributed to Dr. Phil, or Dear Abby, this saying has been used by any number of relationship experts (work and personal) to identify a truth that we should keep at the forefront of our mind.

Conflict Collusion

I would suggest that there is always an element of collusion whenever we experience bad behavior in the workplace. Bad behavior on the part of others needs our cooperation in order for it to continue. Note that I am NOT saying that victims CAUSE their psychological or physical trauma, but they typically behave in ways that are quite different from those who experience conflict but are not victimized by it.

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Our collusion might be passive in that we do nothing. This is what happens when we don’t say anything about things that bother or annoy us; when we avoid the troublesome person so that we are not in a position of having to say anything; when, if we are asked if we have any problems with what they are doing, say that we are fine, no problem; or, when we never say anything directly to the person, but complain about the behavior to everyone else.

Law of Consequences

Aggressors, like everyone else, are subject to the laws of consequences. Briefly stated, if the outcome of an action is pleasant and gets us what we want, then we tend to repeat it. If the outcome is painful or does not get us what we want, then we tend to stop doing it and look for something else. Too often those who are conflict averse tend to reinforce aggressive behavior by giving people what they want when they behave badly. Generally this ensures that the bad behavior will continue.

People who are conflict averse tend to share some irrational beliefs, such as:

  • I can’t stand to have people mad at me, and if I don’t do what they want, they will be angry.
  • Good people are unselfish and don’t put their wants ahead of others.
  • If we have an argument it will ruin our relationship.

We learn conflict resolution strategies when we are children, and for some people, the major lesson they learn is that as a child they have no power. They develop strategies that work very well when they are young, helpless, and at the mercy of large adults. The problems come when they are no longer a child but hold on to the beliefs that helped them to survive when they were five.

Of course, sometimes the beliefs are NOT irrational – “If I don’t give him what he wants, he will shoot me”. Physical violence should not be handled assertively; it should be handled legally.


Pat Pitsel
Pat Pitsel

Psychologist, Educator and Principal of Pitsel & Associates Ltd.

Dr. Patricia Pitsel, Principal of Pitsel & Associates Ltd., is a psychologist and educator. Pat received her M.Sc.Ed. from Fordham University, New York City, and her Ph.D. from the University of Calgary.
Dr. Pitsel's enthusiasm and sense of humour have made her a frequent speaker at conferences and conventions where she has been known to keep people awake for several minutes at a time.

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