Approaching a Conflict in Style

©2006-2007 Esther Derby

This column originally appeared on

Conflict is inevitable at work. Sooner or later, you will disagree about what to test, when to test or how long to test software. How you.and the person you disagree with.approach the conflict affects both the outcome and how you feel about the exchange. Let’s listen in as Jim, a test manager, and Pam, a development manager work through one of those inevitable conflicts.

* * *

Jim, the test manager, started the coordination meeting with
Pam, the development manager, by stating that he needed her team to turn over
all the code on the first Monday in September. In a previous meeting, they’d
discussed having the code complete in October, but Jim’s statement sounded like
a demand to Pam rather than a starting point for discussion.

Pam asked Jim what was behind the change, and when he said
he wanted to begin testing early, Pam was thrilled.

“That’s great,” Pam said. “Early testing will really help
us. We won’t have all the code done until the October date we discussed
earlier, but we’ll have features ready to test starting in August. I can turn
over features every two weeks from August through September.”

“No, I need all the code for early testing the first week
in September,” Jim reiterated.

“Is the issue that you don’t have anyone to assign to
testing earlier?” Pam probed.

Jim shook his head. “No, we need the code all at once.”

Pam asked more questions to understand Jim’s concerns and
offered more options, but Jim stood firm.

Later, Pam mused to herself, “It’s almost as if he needs me to lose in order for him to win. I
offered everything I could think of so the situation would work for both of us.
Now we’ll have to hash this mess out with the VP. Why does Jim always have to
have his way?”

Meanwhile, Jim was thinking, “Why did Pam try to weasel out of this? If I agree to her options, she wins.”

Scenes similar to this one play out in business every day.
The people and the topic may be different, but the ways Pam and Jim are
approaching their differences represent common approaches to conflict:

  • Collaborative Problem
    Solving–Pam is approaching her conflict with Jim by trying to find options
    that will work for both of them. She’s looking for the interests behind Jim’s
    position, sharing her interests, and looking for options that satisfy both
  • Competition–Jim, on the other hand, is approaching the conflict with one aim in mind: achieving his goal. He’s not willing to explore other options; he’s intent on pressing his preferred solution. If he get’s his way, Pam doesn’t get hers.

In addition to Pam’s Collaborative Problem Solving approach
and Jim’s Competition approach, there are three other common approaches to

  • Yielding–In this style, one person yields, accommodating the other persons wishes without pressing his or her own interests.
  • Avoidance–Sometimes people do
    everything they can to avoid a conflict. They pretend the difference doesn’t
    exist to avoid the unpleasantness of confrontation.
  • Compromise–In compromise, people try to meet halfway. Each gives up some of what he wants and achieves some of
    what he wants. Compromise is common, though not always satisfying since no one
    is completely happy with the solution.

All of these are valid and useful ways to approach conflict
in some situations. And each can be destructive when misapplied.

In the story about Pam and Jim, Jim could have achieved his
stated interest had he been willing to look for more options to meet the goal
of early testing. His desire to prevail–competition–in this situation will
damage his relationship with Pam, and may hurt his reputation with the VP.

Pam’s approachcollaborative problem-solving, while
appropriate in this situation, might not be helpful when there’s a clear
downside to meeting the other’s interest—for example if the other person
wants to pursue an illegal or unethical action. Pam’s collaborative approach
also takes time in order to uncover interests, generate options, and reach a
mutually satisfying outcome. It’s worth the time when long-term relationships
are at stake, but may not be when time is of the essence or the relationship is
transitory. (If a store clerk in the airport wants to talk on the phone with a
friend instead of serving you, and you have a plane to catch, you probably
won’t use a collaborative problem solving approach. You just want to pay for
your item and be on your way.)

Likewise, yielding is fine when one person doesn’t have much
investment in the outcome and the other person does. Yielding hurts when it’s
habitual–one person always gives in to the other. Others may perceive habitual
yielders as doormats and walk all over them. An
example in the workplace is when someone always says “yes” to all his manager’s
requests without discussing risks and negotiating. The long term cost of
habitual yielding is resentment, depression, anger, and contempt.

Avoidance may be the best policy when there’s nothing to be
gained by working through an issue. For example, one manager walked away from a
conflict with a peer when they couldn’t agree on a testing standard. He saw
that the situation would correct itself as soon as the standard (which he
believed was misguided) was published to the organization, and that arguing
with his peer would only damage their relationship.

We often hear that compromise is the ideal, and sometimes it
is. But looking for compromise often ends in a half-horse, half-camel solution
that isn’t fully satisfying to anyone. Compromise leads people to miss novel
solutions that can satisfy both parties and may be better than either of the
original solutions. Pam could have compromised and agreed to turn over
partially completed features, but that wouldn’t have worked out well for either
Pam or Jim. Compromise is the best option when it’s clear that a collaborative
solution isn’t possible.

Like Pam and Jim, most of us have a preferred style for
approaching conflict. Sometimes it works for us–and sometimes it doesn’t. When
we approach every conflict with the same style, regardless of what’s at stake
and without consideration for maintaining important relationships, we may win
in the short term but lose in the long term. Or we may avoid a difficult
conversation but build up resentment. We’re all more effective when we develop
our ability to approach conflict with the style that suits the situation.
Consciously choosing which approach fits best, given the stakes and the
relationships, is a winning strategy every time.

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