A Binary Look at Conflict

I’m paraphrasing here, but this was a conversation I’ve actually had (names changed to protect the innocent):

  • Me: What’s the deal with you and Rita?
  • Megan: She’s loud and I don’t like the color she dyed her hair.
  • Me: Her hair? You don’t like her hair? That’s why you argue with her?
  • Megan: Yes, and no. Her voice is loud too.
  • Rita: That’s because I’m hard of hearing! I try to keep it down but I’m also 58 years old. My hair’s dyed because if it wasn’t, it’d be bright white! Instead of listening to music all the time, why don’t you try talking to the rest of us once-in-awhile? You’re standoffish.
  • Megan: I’m 24 and your conversations don’t interest me. And I don’t listen to just music. I listen to podcasts too.
  • Rita: Can’t you at least say hi once in awhile and smile? You’re moody.

Somewhere around this point I knew two things. One, I needed Advil and a glass of something very strong. Second, this conflict had nothing to do with the tasks these two were performing on the project, and instead was of a personal nature. I’d let this conflict go on WAY too long and their angst impacted the morale of the team. It had to end.

Now, let’s start by saying conflict makes us uncomfortable. Whether people are yelling, swearing, pounding fits, or giving a death glare, when conflict arises, we want to naturally step away from it. The first project conflict I participated in was between two product teams. Thankfully, I was being mentored at the time and he helped navigate the distressing situation. I still wanted to crawl into a shallow hole in the fetal position and pray it would end, but I sat there petrified taking it all in.

But I’ll also tell you, as hard as it will be, try to put your fears aside. In fact, embrace it! Conflict can be healthy and increases awareness a problem exists. If everyone is aware of the problem, positive change can take place. Not all companies and cultures embrace conflict, but those that do I find have greater success than those that don’t.

In my 20+ years of experience, I’ve been involved in all types of conflict. From the passive-aggressive to a couple construction guys about to exchange blows. I found workplace conflict is binary and falls into one of two categories; Professional and Personal.

Professional Conflict. Professional conflict revolves around how to complete work to achieve maximum business value. These conflicts can orbit around strategic direction, portfolio prioritization, project tasks, or any number of work related items. Most often, they can be resolved with “adult” conversations, or if needed, bring in a 3rd party to help make the decision. Though it can cause some team disruption, it won’t derail them (usually).

I was leading a large IT and business operations program. During the initial phases of the program, I was working with two Enterprise Architects (EA) on how the technology infrastructure would be configured to allow for all the individual projects and applications to easily be integrated. One EA wanted a “picture perfect setup”, while the other EA figured out how to get it configured quickly and work out the kinks as applications were implemented. Both had valid points.

Negotiations 101: Five Effective Steps To Resolve Professional Conflicts  Easily! | Flipping Heck! Learning To Be Productive One Day At A Time

Well, it took about 32 seconds for a disagreement to break out. To their credit, both kept the conversation professional and civil (these can turn personal if they’re not resolved quickly). However, neither budged on their stance. Not until the CIO was brought to hear both sides and make the decision, did we have alignment and direction. Great thing was, the resolution took both approaches into account and created a new Enterprise Architect process for the company.

Personal Conflict. Personal conflict is way more toxic and can derail a team. This conflict can come at any point and doesn’t always make sense. An “adult conversation” may resolve it, for awhile.

I had another personal conflict arise similar to the example given at the start of the blog. Two small groups were having a conflict that caused them not to communicate at all with each other. It started because a member from each group started arguing about something, then had other members side with them. When I communicated “We’re not the friggin’ Sharks and the Jets here!”, we started back on the path of collaboration again. My strategy was to push them hard so frustration was geared towards me and not each other. It worked.

A Conflict Resolution Approach: Focusing on Individual and Shared Needs

One very important thing to note about personal conflict; get it resolved ASAP. Do it quick and aggressively if needed. I’ve even asked team members be replaced because of it. Personal conflict is toxic and if not treated, can impact the morale of the team.

There will always be conflict. Whether you’re working on a project or within your operational role, you’re bound to come across it. As uncomfortable as it can make you feel, don’t shy away from conflict. Instead, embrace the professional conflict and handle the personal conflict quickly.

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