Dealing with conflict in a development team

It’s hard to create a strong and professional team and lead it to success. But it’s even harder to keep everyone in the team from tearing each other apart and throwing to wolves, no matter how good people everyone is. People always have different opinions, and approaches and

It’s hard to create a strong and professional team and lead it to success. But it’s even harder to keep everyone in the team from tearing each other apart and throwing to wolves, no matter how good people everyone is. People always have different opinions, and approaches and the more professional your team members are, the more likely they are to argue about who’s right. It leads to an ongoing conflict in the team. Conflict itself is quite normal and is common for people working together. It’s a manager’s job to recognize and manage the conflict to avoid its escalation and bring it to resolution.

Five styles of conflict management

There’s a number of approaches to handling conflicts at work. The subject has been researched since early management theories emerged and many conflict style inventories have been in use since the 1960s. The one I like most because of its simplicity is Thomas–Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument that identifies five different styles of conflict management.  They resemble five temperaments theory in psychology that is in turn based on ancient Greek 'four humors' theory. Let me tell you a bit more about these styles.

Avoidance

This type is rather common. You’ve probably done that yourself (I surely did) and noticed when someone used this approach in a conflict with you. A person knows that there’s a conflict but chooses to deal with it later or entirely ignore it. It puts both parties in a lose-lose position where no one can reach their goals. It usually happens when a person who avoids the conflict had previous life experiences that taught him that conflict is bad. It could have started in childhood when expression of disagreement or arguing was punished.

Avoidance of conflict might be useful in some situations. For example, when other issues are more important, you can address the conflict when it’s most appropriate. Or you could use the time to let angry people to cool down and start thinking rationally, reducing the tension.

It’s hard to work with someone who always avoids the conflict. I’ve been working with a number of people through my career who disappeared for some time once they were pressed to report on their status or asked questions that led to potential conflict. It leads to even more tension because knowing their tendency to avoid the conflict I postponed my questions as much as possible and asked them when it was needed and when lack of answer became a problem. The only strategy that seems to be working over time is including a third-party as an advocate or observer to provide an emotionally weaker person some support.

Competition

I’ve never worked in a team where this type of conflict management was used either by the leader or any of the team members. Probably because it’s the most harmful one and something I always try to avoid. A dominant person uses strong language and direct words to strike fear in others. Such a person is not taking into account the needs, goals and feelings of the other party. He wants everyone to do what he wants without asking questions.

Sometimes the dominant approach works well though, but it has to be used with caution. It helps in emergency situations when the team must act quickly, and decisions must be made even faster. But everyone in the team must understand the urgency and support this kind of approach. A dominant leader can push through the bureaucracy to get things done quickly, though these things won’t always be the right things to do.

If you’re dealing with a dominant person in a conflict, the best approach would be to stay calm and focused. The dominator starts to look foolish and immature when dominance meets face to face with calm and thought-through argument. The risk of sounding like ill-tempered, mad and unintelligent person most likely will make the other party listen to you.

Accommodation

Accommodation or agreement is not any better than avoidance. This type of conflict resolution is a stereotypical yes-man or yes-woman who accepts everything the other party is asking for, forgetting personal goals and needs in hope for the conflict to go away. It’s reasonable to use this strategy when you don’t care about the issue. If you’re picking colors in the UI and designer proposes her solutions then it might make sense to agree. But saying ‘yes’ in all situations might be a recipe for disaster.

Sometimes you need to say no. It is crucial for a manager because if you accept everything, then you will likely to get a lot of extra work for you and your team and that would unlikely be efficient. If you continuously accept things you don’t want to do or don’t believe in it may lead to emotional burnout and have terrible consequences. On the other hand, using this strategy, you can empower team members you’re agreeing with and build a good level of trust with them.

If you have a team member who finds it very difficult to disagree and fears disappointing someone, try to talk to them and let them know that their needs matter too and they should stand up when they are not met.

Compromise

The compromise allows you to resolve a conflict by settling on another solution that works best for neither of the parties. Both parties get something they wanted, but none of them gets everything. It can be an effective way to manage the conflict, but it’s not always the best choice because it can provide an outcome that isn’t best for the situation.

So when do you want to compromise? For example when it’s entirely unrealistic to satisfy both parties. In that case, it makes sense to agree on a minimum set of needs that should be met for each person and settle on that. Another situation would be when you don’t have enough time to use a collaborative approach to find the best solution, and the parties are in a good relationship to agree or disagree without consequences.

We tend to compromise a lot on our team. The only drawback with it is that sometimes it’s possible to compromise too early when true collaboration would yield a better result.

Collaboration

It's the best approach to conflict resolution. All opinions are being heard and discussed, and a new, often innovative solution is being used to deal with the issue at hand. It’s not perfect though because it takes quite some time to find that new solution. It’s often not possible to weigh in all opinions because circumstances are pushing to get things done.

Collaboration is great for team morale because everyone is involved in decision making. But sometimes the team gets tired of always holding meetings or reading big write-ups instead of moving on. Some team members would prefer the manager to make a decision instead of continually collaborating.

Not every issue requires collaboration. If you have a team member who always gathers everyone for a meeting to ‘brainstorm’ and ‘collaborate’ that might be a sign you need to talk. Tell them that sometimes it’s acceptable to act as an expert and tell others how things should be properly done (given that it’s their field of expertise). Tell them about other types of conflict management and describe the drawbacks of collaborating too much.