I’m not talking about “scary conflict”. There is lots of healthy conflict at work when you have a diverse and inclusive team. It might be technical decisions (tabs or spaces?), product plans (high risk or high return first?) or casual choices (where do we go to for lunch today?). When I think of “scary conflict” I think of personal grudges, unprofessional behaviour or confronting office politics. Those conflicts need to be resolved but are much more confronting.
How do you react to conflict?
Figure out what your default reaction to conflict is. I like the exercise I did with Pradeepa Narayanaswamy. She held up a large sign that read “Conflict!” in the centre of the room. She asked people to move to where they would naturally go when conflict is in the room like this. Some people moved far away. I managed to hold my ground. The brave ones approached and even hugged her! We then reflected on our reactions.
You may be the type of person who would want to retreat. But I recommend doing this exercise with your whole team so you can see who holds their ground or approaches the conflict. They are going to be your allies when you need to approach a conflict but are not comfortable doing it alone. They may not need to say or do anything. Just having them nearby will help.
1. Don’t solve the problem
One thing I’ve observed is engineers love to solve problems. I have this own tendency myself and have to write things down to keep my mouth shut. So when they see two people in conflict with different ideas on what they should do they want to rush and help… and offer another solution. Now sometimes having a third option is helpful but really you want to take the time to explore what everyone is saying first. It may be that they are not hearing each other. It may be that they are describing the same thing in different ways and don’t realise it.
Help those already involved build a solution. It keeps you as a neutral party and gives you some distance to be more objective. You want a solution that is a win-win. But you also want a solution that they’re invested in as it likely is going to effect them more than you.
2. Use your system thinking
When someone is caught up in a conflict it can be hard to see the big picture. Is this issue even important? Does this need to be solved now or can we wait to learn more? Who else is impacted and are they part of this conversation?
And you can help those involved walk through system thinking themselves. Ask them to clearly describe the options they do not like and listing the benefits it has. What constraints are in place that restrict the options being considered? What assumptions are informing the solutions and can those be tested?
3. Define a test
So we’re not sure if option A or B is better. Can we define a test to find out? What impact are we looking for? What do we need to preserve? Building a way to try out both options and test it allows for a more objective assessment rather than opinions based on experience. That experience is great but may not apply in this context.
Can the problem be broken down into smaller parts to test? It might be we can find out a lot without fully committing to any solution. Build out acceptance criteria that all parties can agree to. Can we measure them and what measurement do we need to reach for success?
Value being the moderator
We praise problem solvers but moderating and coaching people through conflict is a much harder skill. You can help build positive outcomes where there may be no resolution otherwise. When people hold onto unresolved issues those can fester into grudges that lead to more issues down the track. It’s important for teams to practice discussing and resolving conflict. To build the practices that support a healthy and happy workplace.
Keep testing those assumptions!