Resolving Conflict In Your Engineering Career

An engineer leader has many responsibilities, conflict resolution being chief among them. Nothing leads to damaged relationships, missed goals, and failed projects faster than conflict. Considering how to resolve conflict on the job before the next one occurs ensures the team remains focused on the objective and every keeps their cool.

The question isn’t if you will experience workplace conflict in your engineering career, it’s when.  Whenever more than two people occupy the same space, the opportunity for conflict exists.  For most of us, the conflict will be differences of opinion. Sometimes it can get violent.

Over the course of my career I’ve seen workplace conflict flare only a handful of times.  In each case, at least one of the participants maintained their composure such that the argument didn’t fly out of control.  Our task is to be that one person that maintains their cool, keeps it focused on problems and not people, and keeps it professional.

To Confront or Not To Confront, That Is The Question

In Body Quote:   “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t being said. The art of reading between the lines is a lifelong quest of the wise.” – Shannon L. Alder

We are faced with two alternatives when conflict arises:  avoid it or confront it.  Which path you take is affected by several factors.  While many sources will tell you that you never avoid conflict, I will tell you that there are times when you do avoid conflict.  This is a play on the old adage of “lose the battle but win the war.”

Circumstances where avoiding conflict may be necessary include:

  • When a professional disagreement begins to devolve into personal attacks

  • When the possibility of the argument shifting to physical attack becomes likely

  • When the issue is truly of low significance and won’t negatively impact the project

  • If winning the argument may damage the long term relationship

If you sense that you may torpedo a relationship simply because you have to be right, reconsider the long-term consequences.  Is it worth damaging a professional relationship with colleagues in order to establish your position as correct? If the matter isn’t illegal, unethical, or immoral; consider letting it go for the moment and instead work for an opening to reconsider the issue once the mood has cooled.

One method for resolving conflict if you do enter into it, is adapted from the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, which was developed in the early 1970’s.  This method depicts the ways a conflict can be resolved in two-dimensions and can be used to gauge your behavior in resolving a conflict.

The method contains five conflict resolution strategies you can employ when faced with different types of conflicts:

  • Avoiding.  This strategy is unassertive and uncooperative and occurs when people withdraw from a situation resulting in a “You lose, I lose” result.  It might be appropriate for less important issues or when the potential conflict will damage a relationship or overall objective.

  • Accommodating.  This strategy is unassertive but cooperative, leading to a “You win, I lose” outcome.  This is a suitable tactic when one party is wrong or the issue is more important to the others than yourself.

  • Competing.  This strategy is assertive and uncooperative leading to a “You lose, I win” result.  It’s applicable in situations where a quick decision is needed or stronger influence is held by one side.

  • Collaborating. This strategy is assertive but cooperative with a “You win, I win” outcome.  It’s a tactic to be considered when both views are important and a synchronized solution is needed.

  • Compromising.  This strategy is in the center because it’s equal part assertive and cooperative.  It’s best used when an individual is willing to partially give in to reach a middle position such that a “Neither win nor lose” result occurs.  This is a useful strategy when both sides have equal power and the goals are not worth the effort or damage that might result a mutually exclusive position.

Which strategy you employ differs for every situation and for each person.  The effectiveness relies heavily on your ability to listen to the other parties and on being willing to take the first step towards the correct response to resolve the conflict.

It’s your job as a leader, regardless at what level, to move a conflict towards a positive outcome.  Conflict can destroy relationships and reduce overall effectiveness of a team or organization in achieving goals and objectives.  So before your next conflict, consider how best you will resolve the situation in such a way that you preserve relationships and move all parties towards their desired objectives.

“The better able team members are to engage, speak, listen, hear, interpret, and respond constructively, the more likely their teams are to leverage conflict rather than be leveled by it.”  Runde and Flanagan

Christian Knutson, P.E., PMP is a leader, civil engineer, project manager, coach, and author.  He has extensive experience in leadership, project and program management, engineering, and homeland security earned from a 20-plus year career as a civil engineer field grade officer in the U.S. Air Force.   He now coaches engineers enabling them to create an engineering career and life of fulfillment at The Engineering Career Coach.

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