Think it’s best to avoid conflict at work? Not always.
Vanessa, MBTIonline Contributing Writer
5 min. read
Here’s a fascinating fact: conflict is more likely to feel energizing for those preferring Extraversion, yet overstimulating for preferring Introversion. Same situation. Different results.
There are some pretty stark physiological differences that help explain this. First, there’s a proven link between personality and cortisol levels.
Cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone,” affects a person’s heartrate and vigilance. According to Michael W. Eysenck’s research, Extraverts naturally experience lower levels of cortisol, which is why they’re more likely to seek out external stimuli. Introverts naturally experience higher cortisol levels, so they tend to get overstimulated more easily. The confrontations and social interactions that come with conflict can feel overwhelming to Introverts because their base level of cortisol is already heightened.
Second, these physiological differences also affect the way neurotransmitters are experienced by people who prefer Extraversion vs. Introversion.
Dopamine is one example.
It’s the neurotransmitter that affects reward-seeking behavior in people. For an Extravert, the surge of dopamine they get in the face of conflict might push them to seek the reward of winning the argument. This prolongs social interaction and energizes them. But for an Introvert, the reward might be to retreat back into their own inner world. In their case, disengaging from conflict – or avoiding it entirely – seems like the ideal solution.
Acetylcholine is another neurotransmitter that’s important to consider. It’s related to a person’s ability to focus and reflect, among other things. Acetylcholine is released when a person’s parasympathetic nervous system is activated, which Introverts are more responsive to (Extraverts are more responsive to the sympathetic nervous system). When acetylcholine is released in the face of conflict, Introverts are more likely to withdraw and reflect. Evidence also suggests that Extraverts experience an elevated fight or flight response during conflict that can cause them to make quick decisions and/or “add fuel to the fire.”
The most common way Introverts handle conflict
Of course, this isn’t to say that all Introverts hate conflict and all Extraverts love it. As with most things, there are nuances and personal complexities. But it’s safe to say that there are real physiological differences between both types of people. This also lines up with our own research on conflict management and personality type. After combing through the data, we found that the most common conflict management mode of Introverts is . . . drumroll please . . .
The Introverts reading this probably aren’t surprised (the Introvert writing this certainly wasn’t). Conflict is so often perceived by us as a stressful interruption or disruption. So, when we avoid conflict, it’s an unspoken way to say, “I can’t deal with this right now, I’ll get back to you some other time.” It’s like a form of protection.
Regardless of type, we all rely on our dominant personality preferences and behaviors, especially under stress. Avoidance can serve us well sometimes. Here are some examples of when it could be useful:
- As a temporary step when tensions are high
- To buy time as you gather more information
- When you know you have no say in the matter
- When the issue is trivial or no longer important
- When you know the issue is merely a symptom of an underlying larger issue
- When there’s someone else who can resolve the issue more effectively/diplomatically
Conflict avoidance can cause delays and build resentment at work
While avoidance can be beneficial in some situations, it can be detrimental in others. In fact, avoidance is most effective when a person has enough self-awareness to understand when it’s appropriate and when they should try a new approach.
This level of self-awareness is especially critical in the workplace.
Sure, being professional means that you may have to put up with some irritation to get the job done. And it’s often the most “work appropriate” choice. Conflict avoidance can be strategic in that sense. But when it’s overused at work, it can also start a ripple effect that negatively impacts everyone. Here are four examples of what too much conflict avoidance can cause in the workplace:
- Delays – Even if issues go unaddressed, people can get caught up in the tension they experience. This can cause productivity to stagger and projects to be delayed. This takes up more time, affects more people, and causes more frustration in the long run.
- Miscommunication and lack of decision making – Using avoidance often causes people to walk on eggshells rather than speak candidly. Everyone involved may miss opportunities to learn from each other or provide more context into the situation.
- Resentment – In many cases, avoiding an issue can feel dismissive to other people involved. To them, the act of avoidance neglects their concerns and builds resentment over time. This can cause relationships to deteriorate, stereotypes to form, and hostile work environments.
- Reduced influence and perceived invisibility – If avoidance is the only way a person ever handles conflict, others won’t know what they stand for. They run the risk of becoming almost invisible because they don’t speak up about what’s bothering them.
If you look at this through the lens of personality type, it’s pretty clear. We all have very specific strengths and blind spots, so of course our ideas about conflict will differ. In any situation, true resolution requires self-awareness from everyone.
So how do you get there? How do you gain more self-awareness? For starters, take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI) assessment. It reveals insights into your personality that’ll make you look at your behavior and patterns with fresh eyes. It helps explain what energizes you, how you learn, how you make decisions, and the way you operate in the world.
That’s the first step. There’s also the TKI® assessment (Thomas-Kilmann conflict mode Instrument), which is especially helpful for leaders who want their team to manage conflict effectively.
In the next post, we’ll continue this conversation and explain how avoidance can actually be adapted to become a more active conflict management mode. We’ll also provide tips for leaders so they can cultivate an environment where Introverts feel safe and included enough to handle conflict differently.
Want to learn more? Check out these recent articles:
Structured or Flexible: Which learning style is best for your self-improvement?
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Career exploration for Introverted personality types