Managing conflict at workplace – I

I would like to talk about one of the topics about work relationships that come up very often (and came up again very recently).

Scenario

A is a smart guy, well-established and on track to be promoted to next level. He is admired by others in his group and he is proud of himself.

B is a new hire in the team, equally smart (maybe more), who is trying to establish himself in this team. He has better skills than A in some areas and his hiring manager had mentioned he could be the next lead of this team.

Expected result

A and B work together to improve the performance of the team manifold because now the team has two smart guys to leverage.

Actual

A and B get into conflicts way too often and these conflicts drag down their performance as well as performance of the team. Net result is that team is less productive than when only A was around.

Sounds familiar? This is a very frequent occurrence in growing organizations where smart existing people have to work with smart new people and the result is not always on the expected lines.

Symptoms

  1. Each of them tries to show that he/she is the better of two, even in very silly ways.
  2. Team members get conflicting messages when they talk to these 2 people.
  3. One (or both) are frustrated and angry, and show lack of passion.

There are many reasons why A and B behave the way they do, here are a few:

  1. The person feels that their growth opportunities are minimized/lost because of the other person
  2. The person feels threatened and insecure by the other’s abilities
  3. The person is a jerk

Assuming that the organization is hiring well (not a good assumption all the time! J), we can ignore #3 in this discussion.

Sometimes, the reasons for these behavior can be found in implicit assumptions people have behind those reasons.

Consider the implicit assumptions behind #1 above:

  1. Since only one person can be promoted, it has to be ‘me vs. him’
  2. One of us (A or B) will definitely be promoted
  3. Promotion is all I need from this job and this organization and so it is worth the reaction I display

Consider the implicit assumptions behind #2 above:

  1. The other person is better implies that I am not good enough
  2. The other person is better in every single aspect of skills and strengths that matter to this organization
  3. The things the other person is better in are the only things that matter to this organization and so I am worthless

Some/all of these assumptions may be false. Therefore, one of the first steps towards a better life for A and B is to dig out their implicit assumptions and validate them. Some of them requires validation from their managers, others will require validation from peers, still others will require validation from the other person (whether you like it or not).

The best way of achieving success when you go about validating some of these is to have a ‘useful’ conversation with the person concerned. For example, if you go ask your manager “is there only one position available as a lead?”, he may or may not give the answer you are looking for. You need to have a deeper conversation. Similarly, it is hard to validate what matters to the organization by asking someone about it, no one may have a direct answer. These require what various books on the subject call ‘crucial conversations’ or ‘fierce conversations‘.

However, the most critical conversation needs to happen between A and B.

In my next post, I will talk about what needs to happen in the conversation between A and B and an example of good vs. better conversation. Stay tuned!

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