Resolving conflict with your boss

Whenever people interact, the potential for conflict exists. But how do you handle conflict that arises between you and your boss? This framework can help you resolve those clashes.

If you find yourself at odds with your boss, it’s probably not the first time, and it probably won’t be the last. Perhaps the problem is a result of changing company priorities, or maybe it’s just a simple misunderstanding, but when people interact, there is always the potential for conflict. It’s also common to want to avoid conflict, and some people will avoid it at any cost. However, this is not productive. To demonstrate the possible consequences of conflict avoidance, let’s look at a situation that unfolded at Capella University, where I’m dean of the School of Technology. Then, I’ll offer a framework for dealing with conflict that may help guide you to a happy outcome for all parties.

One developer's unhappy ending
As an online school, Capella University relies on a topnotch IT department. Therefore, I was very happy when I found out that we’d hired a talented network designer, Pete. About a month later, I tried to contact Pete for a status update, only to find out from one of Pete’s colleagues that he had quit! Here’s what happened.

When Pete interviewed at Capella, the director of IT made it clear to Pete that his highest priority task should be to ensure that the network infrastructure was secure. According to his colleagues, Pete needed only a few more days to complete his analysis of the networking systems. Before he could finish, however, his new boss (a different person from when he first hired on) came by and asked Pete to perform an inventory of all the equipment and software, including specific versions, of all the IT systems at Capella. Pete may have nodded at the request, but after the boss left his cubicle, Pete cleared his desk of personal belongings, dropped his office keys on the desk, and left.

Facing the problem
Pete’s situation is not that rare. I’ve been a technologist and worked around technologists for nearly 20 years. Many of us go to great lengths to avoid conflict. The problem is that avoiding conflict does not work. It hurts you, your boss, and your organization. Here’s a framework for resolving conflict with your boss.

Apply a conflict resolution framework
Don’t act in haste. Avoid an impulsive reaction; you may regret it. It’s best to get as much clarifying information from your boss as possible, then sleep on it.

Analyze the situation. Write down a short description of the problem.
  • How did you feel and why did you feel that way?
  • Did something like this ever happen before? If so, how was this situation resolved? Keep in mind what the experts tell us about conflict: “Conflict lies not in objective reality, but in people’s heads.” ("Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, Second Edition", Fisher and Ury, 1981). It is possible that you are reacting to some previous situation or inaccurate perception of the current situation and not to objective reality.

Write it out. Write down a short script that follows this pattern:
  • When you did this…
  • I had this reaction…
  • What I would like is…

Practice. Once you have your script worked out, find a trusted colleague, friend, or spouse to role-play with. Don’t laugh. As technologists, we practice our technical skills daily. Resolving conflict requires you to do things that feel unnatural. That is why it’s important to practice! Your role-playing partner should act as your boss and give you positive reinforcement. He or she should also identify any body language or facial expressions that could be perceived as threatening to your boss. You want to come across as being very sincere but not whiny or angry. It is important that you do not blame your boss but rather that you separate the person from the problem.

Meet the boss. Set up a meeting with your boss and confidently address your issue. Remember: You are responsible only for the effort and not the outcome. Your boss may prove to be a jerk, but at least you gave him or her a chance. In most cases, however, I believe that your boss will appreciate the dialog.

Take it to a higher level. What if the meeting doesn’t go well? Gwen Barker, of Logenii, consults for HR executives in many of the Fortune 500 IT organizations. Barker stresses that people don’t leave their organization, they leave their boss. “Having a supervisor that respects your technical talent, provides challenging opportunities, and is honest and trustworthy is a key motivating factor for IT people. That includes honesty around expectations of the job. If you believe this relationship and job expectation have changed, you need to talk with a neutral party (HR or your boss' boss or another individual who you respect and trust) to gain perspective on the situation before a one-time situation becomes catastrophic (employee leaves the organization).”

A better outcome
How might Pete have faired if he had applied the framework? If he and his boss had discussed the issue, here are some possible outcomes:
  • Pete’s boss might have learned how close Pete was to completing the previous assignment and would have allowed its completion.
  • Pete’s boss might have discovered that Pete felt like he was having the rug yanked out from under him and allowed completion of the first assignment concurrently with the new assignment.
  • Pete’s boss might have made Pete aware of some new important and unexpected issue requiring Pete to make the new task a priority (perhaps some type of audit).

We’ll never know how it might have turned out, but I think it is likely that it would have turned out better than it actually did.

What do you have to lose?
Compare the actual scenario with the potential scenario. Avoiding conflict is not resolving conflict. Apply this framework, and you may find the situation was not what you perceived it to be. Although you may need to change jobs, make sure it is for the right reason and not based on a misunderstanding or the result of a hasty decision.

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