Effective Leadership: Avoiding Tough Issues Increases Stress

I frequently watch family members whom I love avoid conflict and, paradoxically, increase their stress level. Unresolved conflict is like an unpaid bill. It doesn’t go away; it gets bigger the longer you ignore it and eventually causes immense pain. 

I coach senior executives, who you might assume are assertive and enjoy — or are at least adept at — conflict. You’d be correct 50% of the time. 

The tough, but necessary, conversations that leaders avoid are no different from those that families avoid. They’re hard. They might cause hurt feelings. And they’ll no more go away than that unpaid bill.

Calling out bad behavior isn’t easy but causes much less pain than the long-term problems of conflict avoidance. The bad behavior will continue and may get worse. Team members or customers will suffer because you’re unwilling to be brave. It sends a message that bad behavior is OK. You lose credibility as a leader. All this because you’re fearful of a tough conversation? Pay the bill!

Firing the person who consistently violates your values isn’t easy but causes less pain than leaving them on your team. All those bad things I just mentioned will happen. I’ve seen well-meaning, talented CEOs and business owners put their entire business at risk because they’re afraid of a tough conversation. How does that benefit anyone? Pay the bill!

People who avoid conflict (whether they’re executives or not) get good at it. They convince themselves that they’re doing the right thing, that they’re being “nice” (see “Successful Executives Are Not Nice”). It’s neither good nor kind. It allows offenders to continue down a path of self-destruction and eventually encounter an assertive boss who may not be kind enough to counsel them — they’ll just fire them. Pay the bill now!

In many regards, people who avoid conflict are selfish. They don’t see themselves that way, but they put their short-term comfort above the long-term interests of everyone else. It’s not easy, but you can learn to be assertive and have tough conversations. If you’re going to lead effectively, you darn well better do so!

At some point you have to pay the bill!

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