Disagreements at work are natural and do not have to be met with trepidation. With the proper framework, you can constructively manage conflict at work in a professional manner.
Let’s start with an example. In rapidly scaling SaaS organizations, it’s a common occurrence that resource constraints lead to disagreements on initiative prioritization. A realistic scenario would be for an Engineering Manager (let’s call her Emily) and a Product Manager (let’s call him Palmer) to disagree on the relative priorities of two initiatives.
How should Emily and Palmer resolve their disagreement?
Too often people use the wrong conflict resolution approach, including being the loudest voice in the room, being the squeaky wheel, or escalating to a higher level of management. So, if these are the wrong approach, then what’s the right approach.
The right approach to conflict resolution at work is to first acknowledge the disagreement.
Step 1) Acknowledge the disagreement
Emily could say, “Palmer, I hear what you’re saying. From your perspective, the organization values Initiative A more than Initiative B. You believe this based on what you believe best aligns with our business priorities. I however am under the impression that Initiative B is a higher priority for the business. I believe we have identified an area where we are misaligned.”.
To which, Palmer could reply, “I agree. We identified an important area where we are misaligned and I agree with your assessment. I’m excited. We have an opportunity to better align with the business and then we can resolve our disagreement and proceed with both us aligned with each other and the business. Given that we disagree it would seem that either one or both of us are misaligned with the business.”
Look at how Emily and Palmer handled the situation. They avoided interpersonal conflict. Instead they are leveraging their disagreement fix a misalignment.
Step 2) Align with the business
Acknowledging the disagreement is great and all, but it’s not very useful if it ended there. As a next step, Emily and Palmer agreed to communicate with key decision makers who could help them learn what are the true priorities for the business. Importantly, Emily and Palmer agreed to avoid arguing their side, but instead to probe with the intent of listening and learning from key decision makers, rather than attempting to sway opinion.
Emily and Palmer split the key decision makers in half, with each talking to half of them. They took notes during each meeting and then scheduled a follow-up.
Step 3) Align with your peer(s)
Emily and Palmer scheduled a follow-up meeting to discuss their findings.
Emily could start the meeting by saying, “As we discussed, I followed up with a number of key decision makers to align myself with the organization. During my discussions I learned that Initiative B is a higher priority than Initiative A. However, what I learned was that there’s another initiative that’s even higher priority. What I found is that we should prioritize Initiative C, then Initiative B, and Initiative A. What were your findings?”
To which Palmer could reply, “I heard the same thing. It’s C, then B, then A. I’m so glad we disagreed and then used this as an opportunity to align with the business”.
Step 4) Execute
At this point in time, Emily and Palmer are aligned with each other and with the business. It’s time to execute on Initiative C with full support and buyin from both Engineering and Product.
While this was a example scenario, it’s closely matches the types of disagreements that frequently occur in corporate environments. Notice that neither person wasted time arguing, negotiating, or on corporate politics. They collaboratively and constructively used their disagreement as an opportunity to fix a misalignment.
To leverage this conflict resolution framework everyone involved needs to agree to using the framework.
To summarize, my recommended method for resolving conflict in corporate environments is:
- Acknowledge the disagreement
- Align with the business
- Align with your peer(s)