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Michael Smith: I am talking with Mark Gorkin about his CFUN-04 talk "Managing Project Conflict". Why should programmers care about projects conflict?

Mark Gorkin: Programmers need to care about managing conflict as conflict is inevitable when you get clients, programmers and project managers together. In fact, anywhere you have interested parties with different basic knowledge and understandings of a project under time pressure, there will be conflict. We argue over time and time frames, personnel needs, project costs, competing demands/projects, and even little things, like a need for a life outside the project! And, of course, with different understandings come varying expectations (if not misguided assumptions)...and before you know it...

MS: BANG - a conflict!

MG: Yes, there's conflict. Let me define it. Conflict is the friction that builds when two or more people clash over facts, short-term goals, enduring values and the status of their relationship(s). It's also the struggle over resources and methods for defining and achieving these contested facts, goals, values and status positions.

MS: But what about anger? Constructive discussion is fine. It is when the client or project manager gets angry that I don't like it.

MG: Yes. With tension, on the heels of conflict, there often is anger. And while anger and conflict for many people have negative associations, if managed maturely and skillfully both anger and conflict have positive problem-solving and relationship building potential.

As the pioneering American educator and philosopher, John Dewey, noted:
"Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates to invention. It shocks us out of sheep-like passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving... Conflict is the sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity."

MS: That sounds a good idea but how can we do conflict without getting hurt?

MG: My CFUN-04 program will help participants better understand and develop communication skills for transforming negative anger and disruptive conflict into productive, assertive and self-affirming energy and mutual, goal-directed resolution.

MS: Ok, I am fired up to come! But is conflict really neccessary?

MG: Clearly, conflict is vital for today's "lean and mean" times. It can be the imaginative and interactive energy source firing purpose, passion and the sharing of power, three key "p"s for productivity. Conversely, an "all or none" conflict resolution style or climate means one person or group is on top and in control; the other party is perceived to be incompetent, subordinate, dependent, or powerless ... and/or a threat to the established order.

MS: Yes, that winner take all attitude...

MG: This "win/lose" concept of conflict is forged by an aggressive nature, cultural socialization or from extremism in the pursuit of the Coach Lombardi ideal: "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." Also, unresolved emotional hurt or humiliation breeds mistrust, which often compels this "dominant or defeated" ideology. Yet, even long-standing or rigidly competitive behavior, if not basic beliefs, can change dramatically with creative intervention and good timing, i.e., "strike when the ego is hot!"

MS: So how can we programmers disarm dueling egos at work?

MG: Let me tell you the story of Murray, a salesman with a mid-sized company in New York City. My parents' friends, Murray and Lorraine, were visiting when I happened by. An experienced and successful salesman, Murray was fuming. The old company president had recently retired and put his abrasive, domineering son-in- law in charge. Murray, a classic "Type A" competitor, wasn't taking orders from anyone, especially from "some jerk" half his age.
After listening to Murray's harangue, the young boss seemed inexperienced and anxious. I suggested Murray tell his boss that, "I miss the old man, and while I'm not always crazy about your leadership style, I must admit you're keeping me sharp." Murray, of course, exploded: "Forget it. I wanna murder this kid. I'm not doing anything that gets him one up on me!"

MS: That doesn't sound too good! What happened then? Did he get fired?

MG: Two weeks later, I again bumped into Murray. He was still quite disgruntled. This time, Murray dismissed me with a backhanded sweep when I recalled my strategy. Two weeks went by when Murray's wife unexpectedly called: "Mark, you won't believe this. Murray finally did what you suggested... and it worked." Not only had the young boss eased up on Murray, but he put Murray in charge on long- range planning and sales. (Lorraine shared that Murray, before the overture, had grown increasingly depressed. I can just imagine Lorraine saying, "Enough already," and threatening Murray with eviction if he didn't do something.)

MS: Amazing! Why did the Murray gambit work?

MG: Let's analyze this conflict resolution process:

1. Need To Grieve. In order to let go temporarily of his dominance-submission mindset, Murray had to release his rage and then, ironically, "hit bottom." Murray was still grieving the company changes and likely displacing some anger for the departed "old man" onto "this kid." Until one is at a loss and in sufficient pain, new approaches are often rejected. Cumulative pressure can be an ally; so too Lorraine's dose of reality.

2. Play Up Or Open Up. Did Murray play up to the new boss! While initially feeling humiliated, I say Murray took the high road. First, he did express genuine frustration with the changing-of-the-company-guard. And, while Murray fell more wounded than "sharp," by cutting the "win/lost" cord the real challenge and opportunity was unleashed: transforming Murray from cider salesman to company statesman.

3. Position Vs. Interest. Initially, these ego-driven men were trapped in their self-defeating power positions. Each was depriving not just the other, but themselves. Clearly, this inexperienced boss needed an ally with historical perspective and the big picture.

It was in his interest to rely on Murray. It was also in Murray's interest to provide mixed feedback that could be received as a begrudging (hence more believable) compliment. Recognition helped defuse youthful anxiety and aggression. And, Murray's initiative was certainly paid back with "interest." Finally, while Murray would not admit it, I'm sure he enjoyed the role of mentor -- a one-up position.

MS: But did Murray have to change who he is?

MG: No need to worry about this process fundamentally changing Murray. When I saw him again, and mentioned hearing that things were better at work, Murray didn't give an inch. His only reply: "Yeah, the jerk's finally off my back!"

MS: Sounds like managing conflict can really help people!

MG: Yes. While often frustrating, the tension and struggle inherent in conflict sows its own seed for innovative resolution and growth. Are you ready to reap the creative pass in the impasse?

MS: Yes, and I guess I will be coming to your session!

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