Friendly Avoidance: A dangerous attitude preventing honest feedback


Disagreements are rarely brought to light in the Swiss labour culture – risking that these sincere feedbacks will turn into emotional and toxic viruses.

One of the cultural particularities of Switzerland is the respectful and friendly communication, both in everyday life and at work. A disagreement is rarely dealt with live, especially with several people being present. For a layperson, it is almost impossible to detect a fundamental problem.

In Germany, a recognised specialist can say to a colleague or even to his or her boss: “I disagree”. He thus puts himself in the spirit of “Auseinandersetzung“, an untranslatable term which means “to enter factually into it“. Unintelligible behaviour for a stranger, these same Germans who seemed to be close to coming to their hands, give themselves a pat on the back at 5pm and grab a beer together before returning home. 

Relations in France oscillate between politeness and roughness. In case of disagreement, one “takes the temperature” to first seek a common ground. If no mutual position can be found, the situation can quickly become emotional. Criticisms and accusations flare up until the superior puts an end to the quarrel with a loud voice.

What a pleasure to work in Switzerland! …Really? 

In many change-projects, we meet managers and employees who show symptoms of the “disease of friendly avoidance”, as this bank employee explained: “Recently, I have been blamed for certain points about a process I set up. What I’m having a hard time dealing with is the way I was blamed for it. Indeed, the person who works next to me didn’t tell me anything and even told me that my work was good, but sent an email to my manager to complain about the good execution of the process. Now, when I get to work, I’m very uptight.”

The trigger: fear

In a culture of courteous relationships, the people involved are always on their guard and do not talk about thorny issues. Behind this friendly avoidance behaviour are hidden fears, especially the fear of losing face or making others lose face.

To remedy this, the parties involved generally adopt politically correct behaviour: smiling as if nothing had happened during the official meetings. At the end of the meeting, he exchanges a brief word with a colleague he knows is on his side, in order to look for alliances and deal with the problem. This is followed by “mail to the chief” and informal corridor meetings to charge the “designated culprit” as subtly as possible.

The price of friendly avoidance

These latent conflicts come at a high cost. First, they lead to a deadening work environment and undermine human relationships. This results in a loss of motivation and productivity, fuelled by the sharing of these “emotional viruses” at the coffee machine. Employees spend their time decoding and interpreting each other’s behaviour or, worse still, spreading their resentments over what they consider “twisted” moves. In the end, the organization suffers from a progressive disinterest in important issues, the best elements leave, others adopt a strategy of absenteeism or even presenteeism.

Management to reduce the number of “hidden agendas” 

Experience shows that training can raise awareness of this issue and provide conflict resolution tools. The method of non-violent communication is excellent in this respect. But the best tool is useless if management does not set an example. First, by thematising the syndrome of friendly avoidance and its harmful consequences for the company and the individual. Secondly, by adopting a behaviour within the Management Committee that no longer tolerates “hidden agendas” in the company. And thirdly, by creating safe spaces for employees to express themselves freely and without fear.

The heart of the economy is built on relationships, not Big Data. To know how to exchange in a sincere and benevolent way, between colleagues and hierarchies, is the key to creating a strong and agile organization that will be able to face the challenges of the new digital world.

Jochen Peter Breuer is an expert in collaborative intelligence and management of collective emotions, especially in multicultural environments. He is founder of JPB Consulting in Paris, France and he2be SA, based in Lausanne, Switzerland