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Reducing avoidance in leadership requires will and skill

Reducing avoidance in leadership requires will and skill

Are you one of those leaders who skirts discomfort and ducks relationship challenges?

Leaders who confront problems and those who pause to think in the face of confusion are in short supply, but avoiders show up everywhere. You might say they’re hard to avoid.

If the toll that avoidance exacts on businesses, families and society could be calculated, the sum would surely be astronomical: wasted time, unfinished projects, weak relationships and low self-confidence.

How can you tell that you’re part of the prolific species of “avoiders”?

Here are some giveaway signals:

  •  You are a compulsive solver and fixer who is so comfortable dispensing technical know-how that you miss what’s happening in the relationships around you. People love you for your expertise, but they know you less than you know yourself. Hyper-focused on being correct, you avoid connection.
  •  Whenever others scream, “Save me!” you jump in for the rescue. It doesn’t matter whether your subjects need saving. You do this so automatically that even fake screamers get your undivided attention. Driven by a sincere yet simplistic spirit, you avoid the distinction between helpful helpfulness and unhelpful helpfulness. 


  •  You run from emotional genuineness by feeding addiction. Your drug of choice might be work, or being liked, or alcohol or cocaine, or gambling, or sex. You crave the way you feel in the saturated stupor of your drug. You’ve found addiction a lot less work than self-honesty and deeper awareness. Addiction and its adrenalin boost fuels your flight from reality.
  •  You seek entertainment in response to discomfort. Prone to boredom and secretive depression, you’re the one who “happys up” serious conversations so you can stabilize your fear and remain oblivious. Are you genuinely cheerful and nonjudgmental, or does your avoidance run so deep that you simply allow anything in your presence? We’ll never know, because you won’t respond to the question.


  •  Whenever there’s “something important to discuss,” you take a bathroom break. With the spouse, the boss, the partner, you’re just not up for gut-level candor. “Too intense,” you find yourself muttering. You display a disturbing preference for harmony over progress. The more superficial, the better.
  •  You lean towards blame. Pinning causation on others—or on yourself—brings deluded relief. Reassuring yourself that you know who’s at fault enables you to avoid both responsibility and messy complexity. For you, fear masquerades as certainty.

The cost of avoidance

A recent conversation with a client, Lisa, embodied how destructive avoidance can be.

A 48-year-old single professional, Lisa works in a successful, family-owned dry cleaning business, where, I thought to myself, her parents might be “hanging her out to dry.” 

Mom and dad, both mid-70s, are in a “fading-yet-clinging” stage where they’re not all that necessary, yet ill-prepared to call it quits. 

Lisa avoids honesty with herself and intimacy with her parents by concealing what’s she’s up against: She suffers from migraines, chronically loses sleep, eats

on the run and doesn’t exercise. With few friends and no relaxing outside interests, Lisa is grossly overextended, routinely working 70-hour weeks to keep the 50-employee business going. 

Just like a taste for vodka can usher an alcoholic to death’s door, Lisa can’t seem to regulate the over-functioning that hastens her demise.  

Thinking enough was enough, Lisa disclosed to her mother, “I don’t know if I can keep this up.”

With furrowed eyebrows and a shaky voice, her mom replied, “If you ever left this business, your father would die.”

A clearheaded leader would be able to smell the mother’s manipulation a mile away. Lisa’s terror about confronting her parents prevents that clarity. Instead, avoidance kicks in. She wants to discuss her energy limitations, but she doesn’t do it. She knows that things have to change, but she wimps out. Lisa secretly wishes for a different life, but she can’t bring herself to say so.

For many years, Lisa has blamed her parents for her stuckness. Only recently, with outside assistance, has she begun to consider her own part—chronic, anxiety-driven avoidance—in this triangular drama.

Reducing avoidance

In rare cases, avoidance can be strategic and useful. More commonly, it is a sign of emotional distress, triggered by discomfort or the anticipation of disapproval.

Standing up to avoidance requires will and skill.

Consider the following strategies for reducing avoidance:

Identify your particular pattern of avoidance:

“I get uncomfortable to the point of wanting to leave, whenever someone criticizes me.”

“I can handle most conflicts at work, but with my spouse and kids, I become passive.”

“If the decision is a big one, with significant consequences, I tend to procrastinate.”

“When I detect another’s discomfort, I change the subject.”

“Serious conversations are a turnoff to me. I want to keep things positive.”

Increase your tolerance for disapproval:

Put yourself in situations where disapproval is likely, so you can begin to normalize it. Expect disappointment when you make a decision or take an unpopular stand. Permit others the freedom to communicate dislike or disdain for your position, and make it your mission to respond matter-of-factly.

Practice taking stands:

Tell others what you will do and won’t do, and under what circumstances. Without blaming or accusing, communicate what you want or don’t want. Notice how others respond. Observe your emotional state after making a tough decision. Can you resist “caving in and changing back” when others disapprove? Stay open to revision based on additional data. 

Because most avoidance is automatic, reflecting on your own “ducking” tendencies is the essential first step.

John Engels is an international leadership thought leader, speaker and writer. He is president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a science-based consulting firm serving top-level leaders and partners in family businesses and professional firms. He can be reached at [email protected].

1/13/2017 (c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected].