A Look at Conflict

Everyone one of us has at sometime in our life experienced some sort of conflict. Many of us have this negative association when the word is mentioned, but it doesn't need to be the case. If you have ever been in a team that has never experienced any form of conflict, then there is some sort of problem there.

The reason is that every person is unique and have different values, priorities and area of focus. For example, some people may be very process orientated, whereas other people like to get results quickly. The goal for any leader should not be to eliminate conflict, as this would be extremely difficult, but instead learn how to manage or leverage conflict.

How Do I Deal With Conflict?

The following are some questions that I came across which require you to fill in the blanks. What I found surprising was how they made me reflect and think about how I have handled conflict in the past, so I would like to pose them to you now.

  • The time I felt best about dealing with conflict was when...
    This may have been a time where you stood up for yourself and were assertive, or maybe when you came to a really good resolution that benefited all.

  • When someone disagrees with me about something important, or challenges me in front of others, I usually...
    Some people may accept this and welcome a challenge, as they are an open book. Other people may be submissive and not challenge the person, or they may request a one-on-one meeting and tell them "How dare they question your authority". It is important to remember that how you deal with this, usually helps define the culture and how they see you as a leader.

  • The most important outcome of conflict is...
    This again will be different for everyone. For some, it may be the actual result of the conflict whereas for others it may be the relationship.

  • When I confront someone I care about I...
    You will find that some people bully the people they are closer to or they may be more direct when speaking to them. This is what we would call tough love. However, other people are more concerned about the relationship and worried if they will be rejected and as such, walk on egg shells.

  • I feel most vulnerable during conflict when...
    For some people, you are most vulnerable when you are found out. It may also be when harsh language is used towards you.

  • When someone avoids conflict with me I...
    Many of us tend to also avoid conflict. If the other person is trying to avoid it as well we almost have this sigh of relief, but at the end of the day, the issue doesn't get resolved. However, some of us challenge the situation and ask what they are running away from.

  • My greatest strength in handling conflict is...
    It may be that you can stay calm and collected, even when the other person is losing it or it may be your ability to remain assertive and not submissive.

  • I am most apt to confront people in situations such as...
    You will find that when someone who is timid and pushed into a corner, or is triggered about something that they are passionate about, they may come out guns blazing.

  • When I was growing up, conflict was...
    You may have been in the camp where it was completely avoided and you could never confront issues. You may also be an earth green type that always tries to pacify the situation. However it was handled, you will start to see that the same things creep into your work and personal life.

  • My greatest weakness in handling conflict is...
    Some people may start to say things that they will regret or you may become hostile and lose their temper.

  • When I think about confronting a potentially unpleasant person I...
    Depending on the type of person you are, you may find yourself trying to avoid the situation for as long as possible. You may also get nervous, or repeatedly rehearse the conversation. Some people may even look for support from someone that they trust.

  • I sometimes avoid directly confronting someone when...
    It may be that this person is important to you and you have a special bond with them and fear rejection from them. In the end, if you don't confront them or try to play Mr. Nice Guy, you tend to get hurt and lose out.

Common Causes of Conflict

As I mentioned above, conflict is bound to happen as we are all different people, with different needs, interacting with each other. However, there are some common cases for conflict arising that I would like to go over.

  • Problems in Perception
    Like I have said before, everyone will see things differently so conflict is bound to arise and the following are some common perceptions which cause conflict.

    • Halo Effect
      This is when you notice one good thing about a person and that then covers up all their other issues.
      An example of this would be when you hear someone say something along the lines of "Can you not see what they are doing to you?". They will typically respond by explaining why the person they are talking about is actually so good to them. Another example, would be that because you like the way someone looks or is dressed, you overlook all their areas of failure. As such, there will definitely be some sort of conflict.

    • Leniency
      This in when you tend to judge someone in an extremely positive way.
      For example, someone may say that you need to give a particular person another chance as they will change. However, you have given them enough chances and believe that another course of action should be taken. These opposing views will undoubtedly cause conflict.

    • Central Tendency
      Coming from the statistics world, this is when you avoid all extreme judgements and rate everything as average or you act in a neutral manner.
      An example of this would be when you have a star employee in your team, but if the leader shows this tendency he will say that he is just average, yet again causing conflict due to the opposing views.

    • Recency Effect
      This effect occurs when a recent event, that involves a particular person, changes the way in which you see them.
      For example, say a new team member recently struggled in using Git as they are new & unfamiliar with the technology. Then the team lead then comes to ask you how the new employee is doing and all that you mention to him is how he struggled with a source control system and they jump to the conclusion that they can't be a good developer. However, you may know that he is a great developer which yet again leads to a conflict in views.

    • Contract Effect This is a common as part of our human nature and is essentially boils down to comparing people.
      For example, you may have just interviewed a person for a senior developer and he really is quite great. However, you compare him to the previous person which is world-class and as such you become critical of them and saying stuff like "They were okay"

  • Unable to resolve past offences

    As humans, we generally tend to avoid resolving any conflicting issues that we may have had with other people in the past. As such, we tend to carry this baggage around that distorts our view and very few of us go around trying to actively resolve the issue at hand. Instead, we may take a passive-aggressive view whereby we agree with an individual on the outside, but on the inside it is a different story and so we tend to land up talking about it to other people which causes us to become bitter. However, at some point all this will boil over and when it does, the real opinions of the individual are shared.

    Often people appreciate it when you are honest and upfront with them and so an option would be to say something something along the lines of "I agree with the end goal, but maybe taking this approach would be a better option in the long run..."

  • Low trust environments
    I touched upon this in my previous posts on trust. In those posts, I discuss quite a few of the reasons why trust breaks down, but here I will just list a few of the most common ones:

    • People not keeping their promises
    • Talking negatively peoples someone's back
    • Keeping a "little black book" of wrong doings

    In environments like these, it is much harder for people to form bonds with each other and instead you find them having a lot more quarrels and fights.

  • Hostile Environments People have a tendency to become quite hostile when they are in a public settings and faced with a difficult decisions or questions. The following are some of some of reasons why we become so aggressive in these situations:

    • Passion
      Sometimes we get worked up over issues that we deem quite important to us. This tends to happen a lot with people who instinctively follow their gut without thinking about it first.

    • Fears & Threats
      In this scenario, you perceive that you life will change due to a shift in the environment. Often, if things are just explained properly and clearly, it calms people nerves down and eliminates this.

    • Self Protection
      I have often observed situations where a statement is made and someone just starts attacking the person on it. Often this response is due to them believing that offence is the best form of defence.

    • Defensive
      This is related to the item above in the sense that this normally happens when a person is calmly discussing an issue that they disagree with, and then they lose the temper as they might have been corrected with facts or logic. They then tend to become quite aggressive and defensive as a means to cover their embarrassment.

    • Lack of Information
      Sometimes we take bias towards a particular thing and only have that single point of view. The issue with this is when you are confronted with the other possible alternative views it may cause them to become hostile.

    • Feeling of Helplessness
      When you feel that you are unable to stop something that will cause you to have a loss of control, this can cause people to become aggressive to see if it can halt the process.

    • Resentment of Power & Status
      Some people may become jealous of people whom hold a certain amount of power or status. This often leads to resentment, and then to anger and hostility.

    • Isolation
      When you are the one that feels left out of the group, or just being the odd on out, it can cause someone to overreact and explode.

As you can see there are quite a few reasons that conflict can occur. In being able to identify what is causing the conflict will often lead you to being better able to resolve it. This will be the topic of the next post. As always if you have any comments just drop them in the section below.

Until next time...keep learning!

Mauro Da Silva

Learning everyday about software development, leadership & self improvement

South Africa