Team Trap #3: Failing to Navigate Conflict
“The absence of conflict is not harmony, it’s apathy .” Eisenhardt, Kahwajy and Bourgeois
“(….or acquiescing, or avoiding).” Esther Derby
Conflict is inevitable at work. Sooner or later, people will disagree about what to test, how to implement a feature, what “done” means, or whether “always” means 100 per cent of the time or some thing else. If team members can’t muster the involvement for a disagreement, you’ve got problem.
Conflict holds the possibility for building trust or tearing it down. How team members choose to approach conflict will affect the outcome, relationships, and ultimately the ability of the team to function.
Conflict often feels personal–but often it is not.
Systems and structures drive behavior, and in almost every organization structures create conflict. Misaligned departmental goals, reward systems, emphasis on functional roles , and differing priorities can all engender conflict
But often people don’t recognize the structural source of the conflict. When the structure behind the conflict isn’t visible people personalize the conflict. I hear this when developers talk about how stupid the marketing people are or when testers complain that devs don’t really care about quality.
Communication Misfires and Mismatches
Once structure is ruled out, the most common source of conflict in groups stems from communications where language is misunderstood, mis-construed or data is missing. These sorts of conflicts are usually easy to fix.
Many English words have precise meanings. But there are plenty of common terms where definitions vary between professions or among people. When I worked in a mutual funds company the term share price was used to refer to the monetary value of an individual investment vehicle (a share of stock), and the monetary value of a share in an mutual fund. If you didn’t know which area a person worked in, it was pretty confusing. Confusion can escalate to conflict when people don’t recognize that they are using one word with two (or more) definitions.
Advocacy isn’t bad in and of itself. But when advocacy proceeds without inquiry, it can become a position conflict. Position conflicts are often easy to recognize. Each person (or party) argues forcefully for a preferred solution without reference to the problem they are trying to solve.
When neither party is willing to explore the other option, examine assumptions, and generate additional candidate solutions, advocacy turns into conflict. Once people frame advocacy as win-lose, it’s hard to back down. Doing so might look weak, feel like giving in, or imply that one was*wrong.* Most people will go to great lengths to avoid admitting they were wrong, especially when eating crow is part of the bargain. Backing down from a strongly held position can feel like eating crow, especially when the other person crows over his victory.
At a recent workshop, a participant asked “Why wouldn’t you start by advocating your own idea?” It’s an understandable question; in the US we grow up on in a system where the best argument (or at least the loudest one) wins, where competition is valued and zero-sum game thinking is the often the norm.
The first reason not to advocate is that when you advocate, you are not learning. You’re defending and pressing your idea, not examining the problem and seeing different points of view. You aren’t learning about another possible solution or seeing improvements for your own.
Arguing points of view and potential solutions is one thing; some times a conflict goes deeper and touches basic beliefs about what is valuable, true, and good.
This sort of conflict can look like a position focus conflict. The difference is that each proposed solution seems as if it could solve the issue or be a reasonable approach. But either or both may leave out key elements of what the other party describes as “reality.”
Different Preferences and Styles
Differences in how people process information, make rational judgements, and plan their day can provide the fuel for conflicts. So can differences in boundaries, social needs and styles, times-sense and ideas about ownership.
We find other people difficult when they don’t meet our expectations of “appropriate” behavior. The trouble is that each of us has a different definition of “appropriate.” To further complicate matters, some areas of mismatched expectations are easy to see and comment on, but others aren’t.
All Roads (May) Lead to Personality Conflict
Some times conflict does get personal–usually when a string of smaller unresolved conflicts fester.
From the outside it may look like two people plain don’t like each other. At it’s worst, it looks like the warring parties are out to destroy each other, no matter what the personal cost to career prospects or the productivity of the team.
It starts with one interaction that goes off track, an irritation that’s not addressed, or an action that’s interpreted as a slight or attack. When these situations aren’t checked an corrected, one person starts making up stories, stories about himself, and the other person.
The story he tells about himself portrays him as someone whose motives are pure, and bears no responsibility for the situation. The other person is portrayed as the perpetrator, the one who is insensitive, crass, or down right evil.
Once you have some idea about the source of the conflict you can apply different strategies to steer back towards productive discussion. Conflict isn’t bad, and it doesn’t have to be painful or confrontational. Conflict–handled well–is an opportunity for learning, creativity, and building trust.