One thing that is certain to happen in your engineering career is conflict. This isn’t because the engineering profession is more prone to conflict than accounting or that engineers tend to be a contentious lot. It’s because, as in any profession, you’ll find people. Wherever there are people you will find conflict. Because of this, it’s important to develop a basic understanding of the three things you need to know to engineer resolution.
Your Opinion and Flexible Rigidity
Engineering resolution starts with a mindset and that mindset is one of flexible rigidity. What is this? It’s the ability to approach an issue with the willingness to adjust your position based on either (1) a compelling argument or (2) realization that your position is wrong. To have a flexibly-rigid mindset requires one to accept that one’s opinion is not always the right one and that other people just might have a better answer.
Seldom in the A/E/C industry are issues cast in stone. They’re more likely cast in shades of gray, meaning that opinions are just that – opinions – and everyone has one. Design approaches are open to interpretation. The acquisition on-boarding process for a design-build prime is liable to a bit of adjustment. In short, outside legal statutes and the laws of physics, a lot of what we deal with in the engineering profession is a matter of opinion.
With so much flexibility one is going to run into conflict and you will absolutely need to engineer resolution.
1. Know how the conflict is structured.
Not all conflicts are created equal and you need to define the conflict in order to engineer a response. In general, you’re going to run into one of the following three types of conflicts.
1. You vs. someone else.
2. You vs. an organization
3. Some entity #1 vs. Some entity #2.
How you approach each one is dependent on a wide range of issues. For example, is there someone else senior or junior to you? Do they have actual or political sway over your current position? Is the issue technical approach or life/health/safety?
2. Know what type of conflict it is.
Once you name what type of conflict you’re facing, then understand what type of conflict it is: professional or personal.
Professional conflicts are those based on rational or quantifiable matters. I disagree with you over a technical approach taken to address a particular detail on an airfield pavement feature. You disagree with me over my take-off calculations for a soil debris pile to be removed in a particular work package.
Personal conflicts are emotional and based on qualifiable matters. I disagree with you because I think engineers from your university are idiots. You disagree with me because I didn’t support you on an issue that came up in a project meeting last month.
To cut to the chase: the professional disagreement is one that is simpler to resolve than the personal disagreement.
The reason has to do with the introduction of emotions. Once a conflict becomes personal or emotional, you don’t have many resolution options. The best thing to do in personal disagreements is to give them time, then pursue the olive branch.
3. Engineer resolution.
Once you can define the structure and you know if you’re dealing with a professional or personal conflict, you can engineer your resolution.
- Give the situation some breathing space. This is especially true if the conflict is personal. One thing learned from a 25-year career (and marriage!) is that level of effort does not get you to resolution any faster than giving an issue time to settle. It’s only the hard-headed or inexperienced that keeps pushing on an emotional-based conflict to get resolution. So, take a knee.
- Find common ground. In professional arguments there is always a common ground that can satisfy both parties. This is especially true if both parties are actually interested in delivering success on the project they are working on together.
- Remove the conflict generator. In some situations, the source of the conflict may need to be removed from the equation. This is a last resort and generally the domain of senior leadership. I’d also say, it’s only pursued as a last resort.
Conflict is something each of us will experience in our engineering careers. How you resolve it will tell others a great deal about your leadership style and potential, as well as your capacity for taking on greater levels of responsibility. Learn to identify what type of conflict you’re facing so you can better engineer the resolution and deliver success for you, your adversary, and client.
Please leave your comments, feedback or questions in the section below on how you can engineer resolution.
To your success,
Christian Knutson, PE, PgMP, PMP
Engineering Management Institute