How to Get Your Head Out of the Sand

August 29, 2019
Two people having a discussion at a table.

It’s there in productive offices and destructive ones, healthy relationships and harmful ones. It must be embraced, if not cultivated, but it also must be monitored closely and carefully. It’s not peace or happiness. Rather, it’s conflict, the part of all relationships that sends shivers for many, but also plays an important role in producing better, or at least improved, ideas and innovation – something fundamental to great companies.

While conflict may an inevitable part of the human condition, many people admit that they purposely avoid it. That creates a slippery slope that’s harmful to individuals and to organizations (as well as relationships inside and outside the workplace). In fact, research has shown links between avoiding conflict, which really is just conflict suppression, and all kinds of complications – from overall dissatisfaction to memory loss.

The importance of how we manage conflict is one of the areas where the Harvard Study on Adult Development provides particular insight. This Study, which has tracked the lives of 724 families for over 80 years, is the longest study of adult life ever done, and I’ve directed the Study for the last 15 years. Using data from a cohort of original participants our paper, Facing the Music or Burying Our Heads in the Sand?: Adaptive Emotion Regulation in Midlife and Late Life, reports our finding that use of avoidant defenses in midlife predicted poorer memory nearly four decades later. Additionally, use of engaging defenses in midlife predicted that people would be less satisfied with their lives late in late.

This study examined the consequences of how people deal with conflict in middle age for how well they thrive four decades later, and we think this finding can be instructive for people at all stages of life. After all, we understand that the impact of facing or avoiding challenges – positive and negative – didn’t occur overnight. Rather, the study reflects the steady accumulation of either taking on conflict or suppressing it.

As with individuals, it’s just as important for organizations to not bury their heads in the sand. Rather, they need to embrace mechanisms that encourage positive conflict and mitigate negative conflict. And, just as importantly, to create environments that foster engagement even among those who typically avoid confrontation. If conflict isn’t dealt with directly, problems will fester, important contributions will be ignored and communication will suffer at all levels. And without healthy disagreement, you’re likely to end up with frustrated employees sabotaging their own careers, while making organizations weaker by not encouraging the conflict that’s at the heart of innovation.

At the Lifespan Research Foundation, we’ve been working on developing programs that help organizations – and individuals – embrace that delicate dance.

Two people laying down in the trunk of a car looking out at a field of flowers.

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