Managing conflict at workplace – II

In the previous post, I described the scenario of two smart people in conflict in an organization and why they need to engage in a deep conversation.

Here are some of the aspects of such a conversation that A and B need to keep in mind:

  1. Create shared goals: Without such a goal, no conversation or work relationship can happen. Assuming A and B feel they want to belong to this organization; they have a good place to start creating a shared goal. If they want to contribute significantly to the organization, this is another shared goal to use. A and B need to have at least this conversation before other kinds of conversation can take place.
  2. Empathize: Putting yourself in other person’s shoes is critical to understand why the other person is behaving the way he is. If you can truly see things from other’s perspective (and hold off your own biases), results are sometimes very surprising and insightful. Both A and B need to try it.
  3. Be charitable: Both A and B need to be willing to give the benefit of doubt to the other, and assume they have good reasons to behave the way they are behaving. Just changing to this perspective can make each of them understand the other better. Ask the question “Why would a rational and smart person behave/say the way they did in all these examples?”.
  4. Accept your role in conflict – Very rarely do you see a conflict where only one party contributed to it. Accepting your own role in the conflict and sharing it with the other person is one of the best (though very hard to do) ways to initiate a conversation
  5. Be humble and honest – Nothing kills a conversation more than hypocrisy. If you do not give 100% to the conversation, do not bother to have one. Giving 100% means being able to air your own concerns, admitting own mistakes, show your own insecurities, basically all the emotions and thoughts that go through you. Of course, these need to be presented in a polite, soft and understanding way (and hence the need to practice and learn). However, most people reciprocate when you display such behavior and conversations become much easier.
  6. Plan but be flexible – Definitely such conversations should be planned in terms of what needs to be addressed. However, beware of scripting such a conversation in your mind before the actual interaction. This may make your conversation artificial (and will not let you do some of the above) and useless in some cases, because you cannot control the other side of the conversation. Most preparations should focus on issues that need to be talked through, specific examples that need to be brought up and examined together, specific emotions you have felt in the past that you want other person to hear about, etc. And then you let the above attributes take over.

To illustrate, here is how a regular conversation between A and B might go:

A. “Why did you create a new document for the process of handover to the customer support team when we already had an existing one? Now we will have to maintain 2 documents going forward which is an extra work for us.”

B. “Come on.. it is not such a big work. I thought we should start from scratch and do a good job in documenting our process. Existing document is so crappy it is more effort to update it than start fresh.”

A. “No. the existing one has the advantage that it captures some of the details based on what customer support told us after the first version was released. I am sure you haven’t bothered to include those details in your document, and now the customer support team has to deal with a v1 document again, and they will complain so much.”

B. “I don’t think so. I did read the previous one and noted some points. Anyway, I am supposed to own this document, so why do you care? I will take care of it”

A. “Yes, you think you can. But people will blame me for it because you are the new guy and get away with it. You always want to put me in a spot. I am so tired of this..”.

Both A and B walk away, frustrated with this conversation which didn’t produce any result.

Here is a more useful version of this conversation:

A. “I noticed that you have created a new document for the handover process to customer support. I am sure you have a good reason to do that given that we already have a document for this, can you please help me understand your reason? This will help us stay on the same page if someone asks me a question about it. “

B. “I read the old document. But I found that it is so outdated and refers to such an old version of our product for examples that I thought it will be more efficient for me to create a new one. I have added many more details in the new document with the new examples to make this document more helpful.”

A. “I see. Thanks for taking this effort. By the way, I was part of the team which created that version, and I agree we haven’t been able to keep it updated with recent versions. “

B. “Oh. I didn’t realize you were part of that team. I should have asked you some questions I had on the document when I read it. “

A. “No problem. Also, we had captured many feedbacks from customer support team when they used it for a while. We should try to make sure that the new document includes them so that they don’t have to give those feedback again. I can help review your document and incorporate those feedback if you want.”

B. “Thanks for your offer. Let me do this: I will review your document again with more attention to those feedback and ask you some clarifying questions if needed. I will then incorporate those in my document and then send to you for your feedback. Maybe we can walk through it together in a meeting”

A and B walk away with actionable work items and happy that both of them contribute to this organization.

As you can notice in the later example, new facts were discovered, participants articulated their observations and concerns rather than their judgment, and conversation was more polite and people assumed others had good reasons to do what they did.

I am curious to know your comments on how such conflicts get resolved in your organization.

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