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.

In the story about Pam and Jim, Jim could have achieved his stated interest had he been willing to look for more options to meet the goal of early testing. His desire to prevail—competition—in this situation will damage his relationship with Pam, and may hurt his reputation with the VP.

Pam's approach—collaborative problem-solving, while appropriate in this situation, might not be helpful when there's a clear downside to meeting the other's interest—for example if the other person wants to pursue an illegal or unethical action. Pam's collaborative approach also takes time in order to uncover interests, generate options, and reach a mutually satisfying outcome. It's worth the time when long-term relationships are at stake, but may not be when time is of the essence or the relationship is transitory. (If a store clerk in the airport wants to talk on the phone with a friend instead of serving you, and you have a plane to catch, you probably won't use a collaborative problem solving approach. You just want to pay for your item and be on your way.)

Likewise, yielding is fine when one person doesn't have much investment in the outcome and the other person does. Yielding hurts when it's habitual—one person always gives in to the other. Others may perceive habitual yielders as doormats and walk all over them. An example in the workplace is when someone always says "yes" to all his manager's requests without discussing risks and negotiating. The long term cost of habitual yielding is resentment, depression, anger, and contempt.

Avoidance may be the best policy when there's nothing to be gained by working through an issue. For example, one manager walked away from a conflict with a peer when they couldn't agree on a testing standard. He saw that the situation would correct itself as soon as the standard (which he believed was misguided) was published to the organization, and that arguing with his peer would only damage their relationship.

We often hear that compromise is the ideal, and sometimes it is. But looking for compromise often ends in a half-horse, half-camel solution that isn't fully satisfying to anyone. Compromise leads people to miss novel solutions that can satisfy both parties and may be better than either of the original solutions. Pam could have compromised and agreed to turn over partially completed features, but that wouldn't have worked out well for either Pam or Jim. Compromise is the best option when it's clear that a collaborative solution isn't possible.

Like Pam and Jim, most of us have a preferred style for approaching conflict. Sometimes it works for us—and sometimes it doesn't. When we approach every conflict with the same style, regardless of what's at stake and without consideration for maintaining important relationships, we may win in the short term but lose in the long term. Or we may avoid a difficult conversation but build up resentment. We're all more effective when we develop our ability to approach conflict with the style that suits the situation. Consciously choosing which approach fits best, given the stakes and the relationships, is a winning strategy every time.

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