Overcome the Insidious Instinct to Avoid

Whether it's a conflict at work or a steep mountain slope, face your challenges head-on

Jathan Janove, J.D. By Jathan Janove, J.D. April 27, 2022
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Overcome the Insidious Instinct to Avoid

Former employment attorney and author Jathan Janove writes for SHRM Online on how to inject greater humanity into HR compliance. He welcomes your questions and suggestions for future columns. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column. 

Back in my employment lawyer days, my business card said, "Attorney at Law." Yet I often felt like a different kind of professional—a coroner. 

Why? Because each new employment lawsuit meant a workplace relationship had become "terminal." What started out win-win ended up toxic lose-lose. 

I'd perform an "autopsy" to see what turned the relationship toxic, and why. 

After hundreds of these autopsies, certain patterns emerged. Perhaps the most common was people following what I call the "instinct to avoid." 

Homo sapiens come by this instinct naturally. Mother Nature imbues us with a hair-trigger threat detector. Out for a walk in the woods? "Hmmm, is that a stick or is it a snake?" Actually, you won't be calmly and rationally analyzing this question. Instead, your threat-recognition system shuts off your reasoning brain. Your body assumes it's a snake until proven otherwise and responds by leaving the scene as quickly as possible. Threat avoided. 

Over the millennia, this instinct has no doubt served our species well. However, I don't think it helps us in today's workplace. Just the opposite, in fact. 

When something goes wrong at work, there's an immediate fear of confronting the person we think responsible for it. An employee makes a poor choice in behavior, and instead of correcting them, their manager worries, "How might he react?" "She could get mad." "He might retaliate." Or, "Heaven forbid; she could go to HR!" 

This fear is exacerbated in environments and cultures that don't invite or foster open communication (and in ones that allege they do). If employees have seen others punished for speaking up, why would they ever do so in this type of situation? Instead of talking about the problem, they avoid the threat. 

Inevitably, instead of solving the workplace problem, the avoidance instinct makes it worse. The problem festers and grows until it becomes unmanageable and finally has to be dealt with—only by now the opportunity for a constructive resolution is gone. When the manager releases her pent-up frustrations—"I can't take it anymore!"—it takes the employee by surprise. The exchange is almost always hostile. In the employee's mind, insult has been added to injury, a combination that often fuels a desire to strike back via the legal system. 

The avoidance instinct played an important role in every case I litigated. Had the employers not succumbed to it, I have no doubt those lawsuits wouldn't have been filed. 

HR as Ski Instructor 

Here's another example of how the instinct to avoid can get you into bigger trouble than addressing the problem head-on. 

As a young man, I moved from the cornfields of Indiana to the mountains of Salt Lake City. 

I decided to learn how to ski. It took some time before I got the hang of it. Like almost all beginning skiers, I had to overcome a natural, seemingly self-protective instinct. When about to ski down a hill, I'd look at the downhill slope and fear going too fast, being out of control, and ending up in a heap of ski equipment and body parts. A little voice would whisper in my ear, "Downhill momentum is the danger, so counterbalance it by leaning back toward the uphill slope." 

My ski instructor urged me to do the opposite—put weight forward on my skis toward the downhill slope. That seemed completely counterintuitive. "Is she trying to get me killed?" I thought. 

Yet every time I ignored her advice and trusted my instinct, what happened? I went too fast, got out of control and ended up in a heap. 

To ski safely and effectively, I had to overcome this natural threat-recognition instinct. Indeed, I eventually conditioned it to serve as a behavioral trigger to do the opposite. 

Years later, it struck me that there's a close parallel between skiing and dealing with workplace problems. The instinct to avoid workplace confrontation is just like the beginning skier's instinct to lean away from the downhill slope. Both arise from the mistaken notion that avoidance means safety. Yet, in both cases, the opposite is true. 

Just like skiers, managers and employees need to be coached on how to convert their avoidance instinct into a trigger to do the opposite, even when it seems counterintuitive. Instead of putting the employee problem at the bottom of or even off the agenda, put it at the very top. Weight forward on skis means heading directly toward what causes you anxiety. Confront the problem without delay. Do it directly, preferably face to face and in real time, with all of the key players present. And do it with a solution-oriented mindset. "How do we fix this problem?" as opposed to "Who's to blame?" 

Create a no-fester zone and watch how smoothly and elegantly you carve those turns down the slope! 

Jathan Janove, J.D., is the author of Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches (HarperCollins/Amacom, 2017). He is president of the Oregon Organization Development Network and was named in Inc. magazine as one of the Top 100 Leadership Speakers for 2018. If you have questions or suggestions for topics for future columns, write to jathan@jathanjanove.com

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