The Conflict Gorilla

“Absolutely not! That would be a complete waste of resources and I won’t sanction it.”
Around the table feet shuffle, eyes find fascinating patterns in carpets and ceiling tiles and not a person responds to the declarative outburst. Deeply intent on your nearly empty page of notes, you try and ignore the looming form of Hogarth the gorilla.
“I thought the product manager owned the product?” he asks, munching noisily on a banana.
I direct a jail house whisper at Hogarth “She’s the VP of release engineering, she out ranks everyone in the room.”
“Mmh.., , but she’s not on the project team, is she?”
“She doesn’t have to be, she can make any of our lives miserable.”
Hogarth picks a flea from his fur and flicks it into the garbage can. “So she can use her role power to cow you all into place, cause no one wants to disagree with her?”
“Shut up Hogarth.”
The Conflict gorilla: A more frightening and unapproachable gorilla you will likely never find. Most people inherently shun conflict. Those that do not, often tackle it head on and get swatted down for their temerity, with the same end result. The above example is a radical one. The fear of a high-ranking person’s power has cowed many a bright manager to inaction. But it is not the only time we avoid conflict. How many times has someone complained about quality of another peers work, unmet deliverables or more direct negative behaviors (She’s always interrupting me, I can never finish a sentence).
Yet when you ask that person (or yourself, let’s be honest here) what they(you) did about it, invariably the answer is in the range of ‘nothing’, ‘I sent an email’, ‘You’re my boss, what can you do?’?
It’s amazing in a world, so filled with global conflict, that we tend to avoid any semblance of it in our professional and personal lives. Someone, somewhere, is probably earning their PhD, studying how conflict-avoiding seeking people can have spent so many centuries in global scale wars. Well let me be the first to step up and say “Hi, my name is Joel and I’m an anti-conflicter.”
As I look back on my years in Silicon Valley I cannot count the number of times I ran headlong into a conflict situation and let fear, desire to not rock the boat, not become a target, rule my actions. And to what cost? Would I have gotten that promotion, would that million dollar bug have been fixed, would the team been more productive, and so on?
This gorilla has long been the bane of my existence. I knew it was an issue, I knew it was a roadblock, but I could never get past it. Then I heard a wonderful quote. Mark Hortsman, management consultant and podcaster said “My uncle always used to say, conflict is any two people in the same county”. Wow… so I can’t avoid conflict. In fact conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Are you saying, that just as Risk Management says a risk can be a good or bad event, so is it with conflict?
There you have it folks, like it or not we are stuck with conflict. The question is, will we have good conflict or bad conflict?
Now before I give some of my own personal tips, let me advise you against what NOT to do:
Some people like to confront conflict head on. In the above example, let’s say the Product Manager had gone head on with the VP, saying some thing like “That’s my decision and between myself and the developers.”
Now the Product Manager is technically correct, but even as nicely worded as that was, it is a slam right in the face of the VP. The entire rest of the meeting just became ringside seats to the conflict. Just because you have the will to face the conflict, doesn’t mean you should charge in guns blazing. Look what it did for the Charge of the Light Brigade.
So how would I approach the situation?:
Well in the above situation, imagine if you as the Project or Product Manager has just said, “Okay”, or “Okay, thanks for your input” ?
One of the first things to diffusing conflict is to not rise to it. Think of good forum posting etiquette. If you are in a hot thread, the rule is thirty minutes. After you write your post, wait thirty minutes, read it again and ask if you really need to send it.
At the highest level, dealing with conflict has to do with making a safe environment for both sides to talk freely.
Which brings us back to a theme I sense developing in this blog, relationships. If you have a good working relationship with not only your team, but your stakeholders and the extended team, then you will have less negative conflict. Get out of your cube and talk to that VP, get to know more about them than the color of their Blackberry.
Here are some resources I’ve found that are helpful to dealing with conflict:
  • Dialogue Smarts: Skills for Mastering Crucial Conversations : Find someplace that conducts the training. One of my old companies offered it and I still have the Dialogue flip cards on my desk.
  • Crucial Conversations: This is the book by the creators of the course. If you can’t take the course, buy the book (or both).
  • Management-Tools.com: No I don’t get paid to endorse them. I just have found they really work. I recommend the podcasts on Feedback (Especially the Feedback for Project Managers and Peer Feedback), the “Feel, Felt, Found” podcast, the Resolving Conflict podcast and their series on communicating to the DISC profile system.

    In the end, we can’t avoid conflict. As long as we are not monks on a mountain top we will encounter conflict. The question is how we will deal with it. As a reminder hint, hiding in the turtle shell is not the solution.

    I’m Joel BC, Gorilla Talker

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