The words evasion, prevention and avoidance all have both constructive and dysfunctional applications. For instance, avoidance can be calculated inaction that will serve the greater good. You can take actions that can help you to avert a catastrophe and save jobs or you can decide to avoid an immediate decision because you fear the consequences of making the wrong decision. There are times when it is okay to wait and let a situation cool down. This can be a productive approach as heightened emotions impede communication. However, you should not wait for very long, because the longer you wait, the less effective you solution may be.

Avoidance is an action or lack of action propelled by a decision or indecision. This post will explore the unproductive side of avoidance, why it happens, and what can be done to shift to accountability.

When avoidance is in a dysfunctional mode it can be driven by fear or anger. When you are in one of these states, the quality of communication diminishes because this is exactly what avoidance is about, a lack of engagement. It is important to note that avoidance can happen whether or not a coworker continues to have conversations with you. What happens is that the quality of the conversation can shift from a problem solving, engaged overtone to one that is superficial. When conversations are superficial, they can be vague, circular, or confusing.

There are avoiders who choose to discontinue all forms of verbal and written communication. Sometimes the reactions of avoiders are passive aggressive, where the avoider is projecting the façade of co-operation but he has no intention to follow through with constructive action.

When the intention behind avoidance is not undergirded by fear, but a holistic need to take a step back and view the big picture, it is functional if procrastination does not set in. On the other hand, when avoidance is driven by fear, it can cause low quality communication and impaired productivity.

Dysfunctional Avoidance Tactics

Here are a few ways both employees and people leaders avoid:

  • They change the subject or pretend the topic was never mentioned. This is a form of deflection and is also achieved by answering a question with a question;
  • Minimization is a commonly used tactic that is used to create a positive spin in order to avoid an undesired outcome. The intention behind minimization is to mislead by creating a false sense of security;
  • Screening calls is another tactic. You can also avoid by not responding to emails; and
  • Blame is another way employees deflect attention from themselves. Blame is sometimes accompanied by half-truths designed to appease fact seekers.

How Avoidance Impacts Others

Using avoidance as a delay tactic only frustrates the persons impacted by the delay unless they are benefitting from it. Frustration can result in tension or unpleasant reactions, especially if avoidance is creating unfair circumstances where someone feels disadvantaged or disempowered by the behavior.

Introducing Accountability

One reason why avoidance happens is to self-preserve. When avoidance occurs in the context of fear, the reasons undergirding the evasive action can be fear of consequences, circumvention of conscience, or no conscience at all. Unless the avoider has a cathartic personal experience and honesty and integrity become priority values that drive courageous action, it is highly unlikely that evasion will cease because, for some persons, the need to survive can override or nullify the need to be honest.

Another way to transform dysfunctional avoidance into constructive behaviour is through effective leadership. Attuned leaders realize the impact avoidance can have on their efforts to build a cohesive, motivated team so here are some of the ways you can develop accountability within yourself and your team:

  • Build trust. If persons view you as an avoider, they do not trust you or your leadership;
  • Take assertive action to correct unwanted behavior. This can include handing out warning letters and depending on the risks associated with the avoidance tactics, termination;
  • Reward appropriate behaviour through performance management or other recognition programs;
  • Coach direct reports and peers;
  • Model desired behaviors;
  • Provide learning opportunities; and
  • Use transparence to keep the expectations of your team at a manageable level. This sets the stage for accountability and trust.

As a people leader, it is important for you to select the right combination of interventions so the root causes of avoidance can be adequately addressed and an authentic shift to accountability can begin.  As a leader, it is imperative to sustain the behaviors necessary to build accountability, otherwise, attempts to create long-term change will be pointless.

Yvette Bethel is CEO of Organizational Soul, an Organizational Effectiveness Consulting and Leadership Development company. She is a Consultant, Trainer, Speaker, Facilitator, Executive Coach, Author, and Emotional Intelligence Practitioner.  If you are interested Yvette's ideas on other leadership topics you can sign up for her free newsletter at www.yvettebethel.com or you can listen to her weekly podcast at Evolve Podcast.