“Tiger By The Tail” – Conflict

It is everywhere. So, it should not be surprising that it is prevalent in Organizations as well. Through my Career, I have had the opportunity to experience quite a few instances, which prompts me to make it one instalment of my “Tiger By The Tail” series.

Note: As I have mentioned elsewhere, please note that I do not have a Phd in Human Psychology nor have I “studied” Human Behaviour for years. All I have done is to keep my eyes open and my thoughts are based on what I have experienced.

One of the most important lessons during my time in the Silicon Valley is that of Professionalism. Proving, before demanding. Giving one’s very best under less than ideal conditions. Getting inspired and inspring others. Project/Product-first mentality. Not poisoning Team Dynamics. Not using Team Meetings for venting. I can go on and on, but I hope you get the gist. I notice and hear that the Work Environment and Culture has been improving quite a bit all over the World. That is a good thing!

In any Society, Organization or similar Entity, where a group of people coexist and interact closely, Politics is inevitable. Wishing for an Organization or Company without Politics is a wasteful exercise and I personally do not think all kinds of Politics are bad. (E.g. Politics which works to the detriment of the Product/Project would be a bad one. Politics to get a plan/idea (you sincerely believe in) approved is a good one). What I think is bad is “Eat or be eaten” mentality. In other words, pulling down others, who are well on their way to success or recognition, because of a myriad reasons/feelings/needs, which ultimately brings down the Project, Product or worse, the Organization itself. Politics causes a lot of Conflicts in Organizations.

I have come across the following gem several times. PersonA to PersonB, “I hate you. I cant stand you. But, its nothing personal!”. What??? Of course, it is personal. Looks like PersonA need to go back to School and brush up on the language basics a little bit. Or maybe PersonB can give PersonA a Websters Dictionary as the Christmas gift next time. The moment you allow your judgement about an Idea or a Plan or a Message, to be clouded by your feelings about the Messenger, it gets personal. Such a scenario is not good for the Engineer or for the Project/Product. Let me illustrate it with an example. Assume there is a PersonA who teases me and makes fun of me almost every single time we are in a group. Over a period of time, being a human, I could develop a dislike for PersonA. Later on, PersonA comes up with what is (objectively) a brilliant plan or idea. The odds are, I will lean towards hating the idea/plan, because I hate the Messenger.

Disagreement or Conflict does a lot of good as well (I mean it is not all bad!). It keeps the team on their toes. It helps with gut-checking the ideas/plans and making sure it is cross-checked from all angles. The catch is that, the Team Leader and the Team should keep the Conflict away from getting personal and toxic.

Some suggestions:

– If you have high-energy Type-A personalities in your Team, it might be worthwhile to have a “ground rules” casual discussion with everyone before the Project/Product enters the crazy and hectic final phases.

– Detect the following traits as early as possible and try and nip it in the bud, using a frank one-on-one discussion. E.g. (a) Loud-mouth who babbles on and on and does not let anyone else speak (b) Toxic behaviour like public shouting match (which the entire Organization can enjoy 🙂 ) (c) Habitual schedule-slippage (There could be other issues with the person concerned) (d) Kings of dissent (and pessimism), who offer no solutions.

– Sometimes you have to deal with brilliant Engineers, who just happen to have a short fuse. Handle with care! After a few instances, you will get an idea on how to proceed with that particular individual. Most probably, you will have to develop a targetted strategy for dealing with that person (and if required, propogate within the team).

– Encourage everyone to think long term. It is surprising how many times people forget this basic rule.

– How about us losing cool? How much ever you try, there will be occasions where you end up losing your cool. I have had occasions where I have lost my cool. A person who claims he/she has never lost cool, is, well, a L-I-A-R. It is quite natural in high-pressure, high-demand and high-stakes Industry like High-Tech. The correct way to handle it, in my humble opinion, is to apologize in person and smoothening things out. Yes, it takes significant mental effort and ego-shattering embarassment to do that. But I think it is well worth it.

– Team-mates doing a verbal (or physical?) WWF (or WWE, as it is called nowadays)? If it keeps on beyond a particular benchmark, you have to dive in and help restore equilibrium. One need not be the Team Leader to do this. Anyone can (and should, in my opinion) do this. What is the correct “benchmark” for one to step in? One rule of thumb to use is “when the discussion is appearing to enter the grey area, the area between “white” (all rosy) and “black” (blood-bath). Are you feeling a bit uncomfortable and are not sure if the discussion is going in the right direction? Ring! Ring! “Benchmark” has reached!

Adios …

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