Conflict is a key part of our lives as engineering professionals. Especially these days with so much change occurring. Conflict is a verbal (or indeed non-verbal) expressed disagreement between individuals or groups. It may occur, for example, between an engineering supervisor and employee, or manager and supervisor. And, as you all know, conflict can even exist within an individual – for example, when one part of you wants to stay at home and rest while another part of you knows you should get up and go to work (a feeling I have, when I know ‘all hell’ is breaking loose at work).

Conflict needs to be dealt with quickly and firmly. It can often be a positive thing (yes) and improve relationships, refine processes and procedures. The absence of all conflict is not necessarily a good thing. In my book, it could be the equivalent of reclining on the Titanic enjoying your daiquiri while a major catastrophe is about to unfold. When people argue and conflict is in the air, it often means that they have a venture in the outcome and deeply care about the overall project.

Root it out
Root cause analysis is a step-by-step technique to identify the cause of the failure or problem and in dealing with it. This is done by bringing together a group of people to investigate the failure or conflict by reviewing the evidence and building up a fault tree based around examining the last failure and tracing backwards each cause that led to the previous cause until the trail can be traced back no further. At this point, changes can be effected to eliminate this happening again.

We always blame someone else
Bear in mind in dealing with conflict an interesting piece of psychological research (from Fritz Heider) which is: We tend to attribute the successes of others and our own failures to external factors (i.e. outside our control). On the other hands, our own successes and failures of others are attributed to internal controllable factors.

Suggestions on dealing with team conflict

  • Define the problem carefully
  • Gather data and look for objective evidence
  • Analyse the data
  • Choose the best solution
  • Implement the solution quickly and keep refining it

Some additional tools to use for your team to resolve the conflict quickly and effectively

  • Attack the problem and not the person
  • Focus on what can be done and not on areas where you have no control
  • Encourage contribution and frank exchanges of opinion
  • Express feelings in a way that does not blame but solves the problem
  • Accept ownership appropriately for all or part of the problem
  • Listen carefully and understand the other person’s point of view before stating your own
  • Show respect for the other person
  • Solve the problem whilst building the relationship

And if things get very heated; take a break and look for a lateral solution to the conflict or problem.

As Garth Brooks says: The greatest conflicts are not between two people but between one person and himself.

Yours in engineering learning