Conflict in a team setting is one of the natural hazards of the workplace. Unless you are on a project with no schedule pressure, and no technical challenges, and a single obvious way to get the job done, there will be some form of conflict (if you do happen to work on that sort of project, then you’re probably going to have to deal with the challenge of keeping yourself awake). Different perspectives of how to get the work done are healthy, but when we get into situations where it gets personal, trouble is brewing. Listening to how we express our frustrations with someone else on the team can be quite revealing.
Over time on a project, you might find it difficult to work with someone. Eventually, we start to sense the symptoms. An e-mail from them may cause your shoulders to slump slightly, having them drop by your office can be even more stressful. Most of the time this condition will have taken a while to become this challenging, sometimes it happens right out of the gate. Either way, same result. Your productivity goes way down, the joy in working on the project diminishes, and it’s a pretty safe bet that the other person is impacted in the same way.
Here’s a quick acid test. Think about that person and complete this sentence: “I can’t seem to work with [name], who…”
Chances are that if you have a situation like this right now with someone, it was pretty easy to complete that sentence. How you completed that sentence gives us some ideas on how to get past this challenge.
If you used “is” as the next word in that sentence, it’s worth focusing more on the “I can’t” part of the sentence. You might have had problems with the fact that Bob is from a different culture, has different religious beliefs, maybe Alice has a different gender, or their first language might be different than yours. Maybe they were too young, or too old. I’ve experienced people that had problems working with Canadians, and people challenged working with people that are not Canadian. Whatever the difference, what’s happening is that you have problems with who that person is. I can’t easily change the fact that I am a Canadian male that only speaks English (pathetic, isn’t it?). It’s not realistic to expect people to change something that is an intrinsic part of who they are, you’re better off looking into yourself: how can you accept this person for who they are?
Until we can get past all the issues around the people we are dealing with on a team, we’ll never be able to leverage all of that diversity to our advantage. Regardless of the skills that are brought to bear and how interesting the project is, while we are stuck with problems based on who our teammates are, the conflict will remain. Building teams that are completely homogeneous might appear to solve that problem, but we lose all the versatility that is critical in projects.
If you used “does” as the next word in that test sentence, then you are likely focusing on some aspect of their behaviour. It might be a way they express their opinions, or a mannerism that grates on you for some reason, or they might never give you a chance to express your opinions. Expressing the challenge as someone’s behaviour means that the conflict is based on something that you can work on together. The challenges are worth a discussion, but make sure that you present the challenge in terms of how it impacts you. Dealing with behaviour is something that can be done collaboratively, and we’re more likely to find that a bit of give and take is the way to resolve the issue. Once both sides appreciate that there is a challenge preventing the two of you from working effectively, the solution usually becomes apparent, and sometimes quite easy to resolve.
Asking someone to change who they are, though, is too much of a stretch. There’s still room for collaboration in that first scenario, though, in the form of gaining a better appreciation for who people are, and the fact that anyone can contribute on projects. Once you get to know someone and appreciate their contributions to the team, you often find that your first impressions were merely prejudices.
And those prejudices have no role in a team environment. – JB