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Fearsome Avoidance Behavior at Work Doesn’t Always Look the Way You Think

fearsome avoidance behaviors at work dont look the way you think they do

When we allow our avoidance behaviors to take over to remove the internal stress of a situation, an “Avoidephant” is created.

Avoidephants are one of the archetypes in my book, Don’t Feed the Elephants!

Unlike its brothers and sisters, an Avoidephant pushes itself in the way of anyone trying to initiate a necessary conversation and keeps team members from clarifying important information.

In the presence of an Avoidephant, we literally avoid conversations, opting to internalize our thoughts, feelings, and insights. Sometimes we even avoid conversation with ourselves. The Avoidephant feeds on the fears of a team and the desire for safety and harmony. When an Avoidephant is allowed to stay in a room, it grows rapidly.

avoidance behaviors at work creates an avoidepantA CEO Case Study on Avoidance Behavior at Work

Michael was a CEO who genuinely cared for his team, yet Michael’s team often felt that he didn’t have their back, valuing his relationship with the board over his relationship with them. When Michael brought in board-suggested initiatives and asked for feedback, the team would often agree with his ideas or go silent. Michael knew that since his team would be responsible for enacting the initiative, their ideas would be valuable. At times, he felt frustrated by their lack of interest in the discussion.

When I met with his team to understand what was going on, I learned that they didn’t feel empowered to speak against the board’s initiatives because of Michael’s relationship with them. They genuinely liked Michael and, despite this issue, knew he was a good guy, so they held hesitancy around the possibility of hurting his feelings. Michael valued his team and believed in their potential. He avoided bringing up his disappointment in their engagement because he feared it would damage morale. Violent politeness in action.

By feeding the Avoidephant, frustration builds up on both sides. The team felt forced to implement initiatives that impacted their day-to-day work, which hurt their collaboration, created resentment towards Michael, and strained trust. When we dove in and had that difficult conversation, he hadn’t realized they felt he wasn’t on their side. Michael was able to hear what his team needed and was able to tell his team about the ways he tried to have their backs with the board of directors. It was a simple, albeit uncomfortable, conversation with a huge impact. Reassured of their relationship, the team shared their thoughts on the new initiatives with candor and freed the Avoidephant.

What Avoidance behaviors Sound Like at Work

The language around the Avoidephant tends to be minimizing. To correctly identify the Avoidephant, listen for phrases like:

  • “I know they’re good people….”
  • “It’s not that big of a deal anyway.”
  • “I don’t want to make them feel bad.”
  • “I’m not going to give them feedback because they’ll get defensive and take it out on me.”

Questions that Can Free an Avoidephant at Work

In the case of the Avoidephant, remember that you may need to find allies who are willing to support you in speaking up. There is greater safety in numbers, but sometimes we have to be willing to speak and stand with courage alone.

  • What’s holding me back from having a transformative conversation?
  • What am I afraid of when I imagine the conversation? Retaliation, exclusion, loss of harmony, hurt feelings, or something else?
  • What confirms this fear?
  • What disconfirms this fear?

Want even more information on how to identify and approach avoidance behaviors in relationships? Check out Don’t Feed the Elephants! out now!

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Sarah Noll Wilson is on a mission to help leaders build and rebuild teams. She aims to empower leaders to understand and honor the beautiful complexity of the humans they serve. Through her work as an Executive Coach, an in-demand Keynote Speaker, Researcher, Contributor to Harvard Business Review, and Bestselling Author of “Don’t Feed the Elephants”, Sarah helps leaders close the gap between what they intend to do and the actual impact they make. She hosts the podcast “Conversations on Conversations”, is certified in Co-Active Coaching and Conversational Intelligence, and is a frequent guest lecturer at universities. In addition to her work with organizations, Sarah is a passionate advocate for mental health.

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