TL;DR Conflicts in a team and your manager’s role in them.

TL;DR

Whilst it is in our power to resolve most of the conflicts if we take the right approach, there are situations where it might be impossible. That’s where your boss should help. It is in her best interest to listen to you, guide you through the conflict situation and step in if necessary.

The reasons your manager doesn’t want to be involved

  • Doesn’t care or is afraid.
  • Doesn’t know how to deal with conflict situations.
  • Thinks conflicts are harmful, and we should avoid them at all costs.
  • Company politics is in the way.
  • Likely, she doesn’t have much support from her boss either.

If you go to your boss and with a problem and all you get back is something like “fix it yourself”, that means you need a new boss. She clearly doesn’t want to understand the problem or has no idea how to deal with it. If the problem is left untreated, she will soon have to deal with a seriously unmotivated team or leave notices on her desk.

Why is conflict so hard?

Conflicts are an inevitable part of our work, and not only. Unfortunately, they are also often emotionally charged and create barriers that prevent us from moving forward and achieving our goals. In other words, when we are exposed to different ways of thinking or even other business areas, we encounter various approaches that do not always align well.

The most common reasons for conflicts

  • “Task conflict” becomes “relationship conflict”. We take things too personally.
  • Poor communications & too many assumptions.
  • Ego and threat to self-worth.
  • People don’t know how to deal with them.

Confrontation is uncomfortable, and we are usually too focused on emotions rather than the conversation. As a result, our stress level is high, and our brain goes into fight or flight mode. That’s when we start making mistakes, focused on ourselves rather than the problem. It usually comes from the fact that people are afraid of conflict or don’t know how to deal with it.

Another major problem with conflicts, which used to be a challenge for me, is when we take things too personally. We don’t hear “this is bad”. Instead, we hear “we are bad”, which puts us in defence mode. We have difficulty understanding that the whole conversation is not about us but about a particular thing. Until we acknowledge the actual subject of the conflict, we won’t be able to resolve it. Instead, we will develop good excuses and slowly lead ourselves into a full-frontal confrontation. This is commonly known as task conflict, becoming a relationship conflict and quickly escalating into other areas unrelated to the topic itself… Whilst the initial problem stays unresolved, again.

Ego-based conflict is another way people feel threatened and comes from low self-esteem and insecurities. One of the most interesting examples is code reviews, a part of the typical software development process. PRs (how they are called) happen when a person uploads a new feature or a fix and asks for the code to be reviewed before being pushed live. A reviewer might not like something, find it confusing, or has a suggestion, so he adds comments and return it back to the requestor…. Then, the ego kicks in, and the requestor feels criticised; the hell begins — an endless and meaningless exchange of comments that can go for a week. That’s just a perfect example of how not to handle a conflict situation. Surprisingly, senior and experienced people are often bad at dealing with criticism from peers, especially from new team members or juniors.

In the end, it is all about communication and trust. When a team doesn’t feel safe working together and can’t depend on the boss, everything feels like a threat, and tend to be avoided altogether. We like to assume what others think and want, but when we haven’t formed a bond with another person yet, we need to put extra effort to ask questions, even if they feel apparent to us. That’s how we can start eliminating chances for conflicts to arise in the first place, especially in a new environment.

Failing bosses.

That’s what I really wanted to talk about here, bosses who feel conflict is a bad thing, and it’s better to bury stuff in the ground and forget about them. That’s why your boss sucks when she says “I don’t want to hear about problems in the team. You are grown-ups. You should solve them yourself”. She is partially right, but that doesn’t help the situation. In the end, it is her job to support the team.

That doesn’t automatically mean she should jump on the case, talk to everyone, and solve the problem for you. Since the conflict is not about her, she must be aware of what is happening in the team, listen to all stories and become a coach to guide both sides independently. The goal is to be impartial and advise how to resolve the issue. It’s going to be hard work for everyone involved, but in the end, it will be worth a fortune, even if the conflict ends up with one team member leaving the company. It might sound harsh, but sometimes it’s actually the right answer to the situation. It all depends on the roots of the conflict.

“We learn more when things go wrong, not when they go perfect and effortless.”

I find conflict situations in my team very helpful. They give me an insight into my team and how they deal with tricky situations. It lets me focus on where my team needs support, and how the situation evolves, tells me a lot about people’s personalities and motivations. In the end, any confrontation should be my highest priority and has to be addressed very quickly. When left unchecked, it will spread and poison the rest of the team. When it does, it will be harder to tackle it.

It’s good for you. Embrace it.

It is tough to look at conflict as something positive, just as hard as receiving negative feedback. These two things are connected as they bring our emotions to the surface and potentially threaten our ego and self-worth. There is no threat in 99% of cases. It is up to us to decide how we want to see them — as unfavourable since it’s our default behaviour to protect ourselves from any harm, or positive and opportunity to learn, change and grow.

“Conflicts become a bad thing, only because they are managed poorly.” — George Kohlrieser

If we keep running from conflict situations, they will always come back to us. So why would you run and be constantly afraid if you can just deal with it instead? Yes, it will be hard and unpleasant, but everything worth living for doesn’t come to use without any effort.

It took me years to understand that certain situations come back to me like a boomerang, and it’s because I haven’t learned how to deal with them from my previous experiences. Different places, different projects, different people, similar situations. I can be annoyed about them and run away or use them as an opportunity to grow.

Deal with it yourself.

First of all, you might be not equipped to deal with conflicts. It takes practice and some learning before you can do it efficiently, but you need to start somewhere, so don’t run away from it. That’s where the support of your manager becomes very helpful. It’s always good to get extra insights and a different perspective from a person who is not emotionally attached to the outcomes.

A few things worth remembering when dealing with conflicts

  • Disconnect yourself. Stop being an egoist. Conflicts are never about you.
  • Focus on facts and share your viewpoints without judgment or expectations.
  • Stay calm as shouting and emotional outbursts create blocks and stop you from moving forward.
  • Build a relationship with people around you, not only the closest one. Bonds drastically improve the chances of resolving your issues but must be created before they happen.
  • Set the boundaries for conversations, and if they have been broken, don’t be afraid to walk away and resume later.
  • Ask your boss for help and guidance, possibly involvement if things are too severe to handle on your own.
  • You are not responsible for other person reactions. You can’t own their emotions and problems.
  • Don’t resolve conflicts over slack or emails, or you have already failed.

It is easy to say all these things when we sit at home, reading a post like that, sipping a hot tea and watching a candle flickering in the background. But, it is tough to stay on track when our fight or flight system kicks in during a conflict situation. We are boiling with emotions and can’t understand why the other person doesn’t see things the way we do.

Dealing with conflicts can be learned. However, if you say to yourself “I suck at dealing with conflicts,” — it is just a lame excuse to not do any work!
Practice is what you need. Practice what you fear.

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Software Engineering Changemaker. Driving digital transformation and sharing experiences and thoughts from my journey. 20 years and counting…

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Andrew Winnicki

Andrew Winnicki

Software Engineering Changemaker. Driving digital transformation and sharing experiences and thoughts from my journey. 20 years and counting…

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