Approaching a Conflict in Style

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. In this column, Esther Derby explains some of the ways people approach conflict and how they affect solutions and relationships.

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 parties.
  • 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 conflict: 

  • Yielding—In this style, one person yields, accommodating the other person's 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.

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