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Resolving Workplace Conflict

Feelings Aside
Conflict Solving
Meetings

5 October, 2021

Sony Mohapatra
Sony Mohapatra

Senior Engineering Manager at Cruise

Sony Mohapatra, Engineering Manager at Cruise, goes straight to the heart of the matter when managing the relationships between those on her team, including herself.

Problem

Conflict resolution can come in many different forms. One form is conflict resolution within the team. Another scenario is one in which you are in conflict with your manager. It can happen anywhere.

I’m not exactly the type of person who will just nod my head to everything that somebody says to me. These conflicts can be healthy, they don’t always have to be personal. The conflict that I recall was one between two senior engineers, both of differing cultural backgrounds.

During their discussions, I observed that it would always be one solution versus the other with little room for compromise. This left less space for what was best for the product. They would have meetings on their own, and one person would always be trying to talk over the other. Things eventually escalated and got to me.

As a manager, there is no single, set way of solving conflict. Many managers that I’ve known throughout my career handle the problem totally differently than I do. It needs to be intuitive. It should mirror the way that you handle conflict personally.

Actions taken

I personally prefer to handle conflict by letting those directly involved sort things out for themselves. I try not to intervene unless absolutely necessary. I talked to both engineers individually before doing anything else.

During both sessions, I urged them to put the past behind them. I told them that I would not be making any assumptions about what goes on between them when I was not around. I gave them both an assignment: I wanted them to think back and to come up with ways that they could have approached a given situation differently.

My advice was to forget about the other person and to instead focus on which aspects of the conversation were actually under their jurisdiction. They both came up with a list. I then brought both of these team members together to discuss their lists.

We were finally at a place where nobody was pointing fingers or assigning blame. Surprisingly, the union that came as a result of this exercise ended up being rock-solid. One engineer was very forthcoming about the fact that they needed to be more open to the ideas of others. They were both agreeing on what type of behavior was appropriate, all by taking a closer look at themselves first.

When they realized that a functional working relationship was, in fact, what they both wanted, communicating with one another became much easier for them. These two were both senior architects on the team and they took their work very seriously. Taking a deep dive into the source of the conflict was exactly what they needed in order to unblock themselves.

I, myself, have dealt with my fair share of conflict with peers. As a female leader, I have gotten the impression that others have questioned my abilities as a professional. I don’t want to generalize, but it is certainly something that I’ve seen happen, often in meetings.

During one of these meetings, I would bring a good idea to the table, only to be met with lots of male pushback. It’s worth saying that I hold a lot of respect for the difficult work that we do; when I bring an opinion to light, there is usually some concrete justification. I am, after all, an Engineering Manager. I’m going to be the one building the products. Knowing this side of the work intimately is very important to me.

With this peer, in particular, they would always push back on every idea that I had. I started to question myself after some time. Am I the problem? Is there something that I’m not doing the right way?

After a while, I started to document everything. If I had a proposal, I would try to show the potential impact through this documentation. I wanted to showcase my ability in the technical aspect of it through these documents as opposed to in a one-on-one setting.

I sent this information to my colleague to look over and to comment on before the meeting. If they then had a different proposition, they would be able to share it with me privately. This was a good start for us; we were finally at a place where we would be able to start designing systems together. These are all colors that people should see and experience within a team.

Lessons learned

  • Later on in our careers, we eventually became friends. We were able to get to the bottom of the conflict together. This would not have been possible if this person would not have been able, to be honest with me about their way of thinking. I was coming from a start-up type of background, so my thinking was very Agile. This was in contrast to their previous experience working at a big company where process ruled above all else. Coming to this conclusion was how we were able to clear the air.
  • It took me a long time to break in with this person. They were an introvert, so getting things out of them was not always easy. You don’t necessarily want to be drilling down into peoples’ personal lives. A slow progression is better than no progress at all. 
  • More than anything, I learned to pick my battles. We all want to do things our own way, but that is not always the best solution to impose. When I started to give a little, the other person started to give a little bit, too. The partnership became more of an understanding.

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