Dealing with Conflict: Key Questions, 360 Reviews, and Bottom Lines

by Cinda Voegtli, ProjectConnections

The other day a friend emailed me with a burning question about "A Situation" with a particular team member. What had started out as some displays of mild to medium recalcitrance - the team member resisting some advice in preparing for a design review, then being pointedly late on a couple of key deliverables - had spread to an underlying feeling of tenseness in every interaction. He really didn't know where it was all coming from, and thus what to do about it.

This request made me stop and think about the various tools I've picked up over the years for getting to the bottom of such issues. They're simple but very effective. I offer them up to you for your own Conflict Situations.

1. Use a few key questions to clarify the person's perception of his place in the project universe - and uncover mismatched expectations about their role.
An amazing number of conflicts arise because of mismatched expectations. You thought the person clearly understood the importance of the deadline, how critical it was for him to ensure the design reviews were of high quality, how absolutely necessary it was to stop scope creep in its tracks. But no. Close questioning might reveal that you and the other conflict-ee are operating in different mini-universes. Very simple questions can help you get to matching expectations on:
    Goals: Is the conflict you sense due to the team member trying to solve a different problem than you thought the project was about? Is their work thus misaligned to the true goals of the project - are they off developing extra features (and thus running late)? Do they simply not get why your priorities were important, because they don't understand the goals for the project outcome?

    Responsibilities: Are you having conflicts because of different expectations of the team member's ownership of the overall project outcome and their responsibility for helping get the team to that outcome? For example, are you assuming they're taking responsibility for quality of the design review, including making sure the right cross-functional people attend, while they don't see that as part of their job at all?
To uncover whether mismatched expectations exist regarding the goals and responsibilities, ask these questions:
  • What is your understanding of the goals of this project? This requires the person answering to confirm that they are on the same page as the project. By asking for the person's understanding, in their own words, you can uncover any unspoken, incorrect assumptions - about scope, deadlines, target customers, feature priorities, etc. People often spend a great deal of time pursuing the wrong goals, or solving the wrong problem, a sure set-up for conflict with the team leader.

  • What is your understanding of your role and responsibilities in meeting these goals? This question reiterates to the person that they have a role and responsibility in meeting the goals, and that it's important that you both understand and agree on them. You may have to guide the discussion with further questions about areas of concern to you-like the example of taking responsibility for a design review being planned and executed such that important technical and cross-functional issues will be uncovered.

  • What is in your way and how can I help? This question asks them to translate their stress and frustration into specific issues that you can help them address. It emphasizes to them that they have responsibility for solving problems along the way. Keep asking the third question until they run out of answers (and excuses). In my friend's case, it helped to get more specific on subsequent asking of the third question. The first time the team member replied that issues with a new development tool were slowing him down. All bets were now off. All schedule commitments were now invalid in his mind; and that tool was someone else's problem. My friend then asked, "How do you need me to support you in getting your tool issues resolved quickly, so you can complete your design work on time? This communicated the PM's expectations (without a lecture!), and led to a discussion of ways to resolve the tool issue and some concrete actions for both people.

2. Have the person do a 360-degree or "reverse review" to uncover areas where you aren't meeting their expectations.
The next approach I suggest is to give the partner-in-conflict a chance to "review" you - that is, comment freely on whether they're getting what they need to get the job done; if you are somehow slowing them down or making their days difficult. As my friend noted, "Maybe if I did that, it would bring up and help diffuse any pent-up issues he's got - things he's felt he couldn't talk to me about." Yes. Absolutely. How many times does conflict arise because one party feels like they can't speak up about what's not working for them, whether because they're "subordinate" in position, or simply shy?

The important thing, though, is to go about such reviews such that they'll be constructive. You don't want just a venting session, or one that degenerates into whining - both of which may make the person feel better, but not be enough to resolve the issue.

Here's where you might need to verbally provide some informal guidelines. Specify what areas you want the person to be sure to touch on. Tell him whether you want to hear not just the problem but also their thoughts on how it ought to be fixed. Ask the person to provide examples of things that are working - ways in which you are helping, as well as areas where they think you're falling short.

Then, for goodness sake, make sure you really listen to that feedback! Don't get defensive; don't cut them off to explain your previous actions. Let them talk.

In the end your conflict partner should experience great frustration relief just from being allowed to talk freely. And if you've not been meeting their expectations, you'll have detailed fodder for working toward a resolution of those mismatches.

3. Discuss your personal "bottom lines" for working together productively.
This approach was introduced to me by a colleague years ago, and I can safely say that its use salvaged a fraying professional relationship and has kept us from killing each other ever since.

The concept of "bottom lines" first acknowledges that each person has important likes and dislikes, ways of working, preferences for all kinds of things. These bottom lines can be anything from whether you will accept work phone calls over the weekend to how you want to be communicated with or tasked. Some of these items are mandatory: If those bottom lines are not met, the working relationship could be seriously jeopardized. There's no right or wrong-just what people need to work productively and happily. The bottom-line conflict management approach is to get each person's bottom lines on the table right up front - whatever bottom lines matter to the situation at hand - and figure out how to meet each other's if at all possible.

For instance, when I first started working with a consulting colleague 10 years ago, I started getting pages and phone calls on Sunday evenings. The guy was single with no kids, and worked all the time. I, on the other hand, worked lots of hours but had a 2-year-old daughter and was in no way interested in having family time disrupted on Sunday nights. I started getting mad and tense and short with him over this issue. I realized this was a "bottom line" for me. If he needed me to answer my phone without fail on Sunday nights, then I wasn't going to work with him. He introduced me to concept of a bottom line discussion. We had a two-hour meeting, free form, listing and discussing our bottom lines. Turns out his Sunday calls were not so much about getting me on the phone directly on Sunday nights. But he did have a bottom line about responsiveness. He went crazy if he didn't know for sure that he'd be able to get me when something was urgent, or have me respond within a certain period if it was less urgent. So, we worked out a communication system for prioritizing communication and handling emergencies and committing to response times � ensuring we both got what we needed.

Here's another example: It's a bottom line for me that if someone reaches a roadblock on something that had a critical "must make it" deadline associated with it, they are to tell me immediately. Not, "Oh she's so busy, I don't want to bother her with this." Not, "Oh it's not critical, I'll just take longer to finish it." Not, "Well, it's not finished to her requirements yet, so the right thing is to not let her see it until it's perfect." It is an absolute requirement that I be told as soon as they think the deadline is in jeopardy. I can deal with changes and delays if I'm given the heads up. I hate it when my options are removed by non-delivery and non-notification until it's too late!

I suggested to my friend that he might even have some "style" bottom lines going on with his conflict partner. Could the engineer be taking the PMs questions about status as micro managing? I've known technical folks with what amounted to bottom lines about how often they had to give status updates, and in what form. This approach could bring it out. Give the person examples like this so they'll feel it's safe to say such things to you.

The key is that when you do this together - each person getting to express the things that really matter or tell the things that really make them crazy, it can get past negative interaction issues fast.

4. Finally, collaborate and create an action plan together.
Now you've gotten some great information just from talking to each other. You should be able to see where any key mismatches in your expectations and theirs were generating conflict; where you weren't meeting their expectations. And you should have a much better understanding of each other's critical bottom lines, to help form a more solid foundation for working conflict-free.

At this point, the most important thing is to take some concrete action to address these things. Discuss their priority. Identify easy wins - things you can change right now. Set an informal check-in point a short time down the road to compare notes on what you've each changed, and agree on whether or not things are working better, whether or not the conflict has been handled.

No matter what the size of your conflict, consider these steps. The goal is to simply move yourselves from the pain and discomfort and tension of conflict to a better foundation for working together-a place where you can collaborate to resolve areas of conflict, and get on with the main show.

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