Leadership for Systems Engineers – Conflict Management

“[Conflict] is valuable to the organization and its projects because it is the engine that drives positive change.” 

The leaders of systems engineering projects must understand and manage conflict to the benefit of their projects and organizations. Our initial instinct, conditioned by cultural norms, is that conflict should be minimized and, if possible, eliminated. But the first lesson in the process of mastering conflict management is that conflict is actually good. It is valuable to the organization and its projects because it is the engine that drives positive change. Conflict propels the work forward and provides the impetus for innovation.

There is ample research to support the principle that no change takes place absent a certain level of dissatisfaction with the status quo. This dissatisfaction leads naturally to conflict, first between the seeds of discontent and change and the forces of the inertia that arise around the “as is” and later among the competing alternative paths forward. This is true where top-down designs create new solutions to solve fresh problems but it is even more the case where middle-out projects create designs that must integrate within an existing system. The tight integration necessary for successful middle-out solutions creates the opportunity for a variety of conflicts. Our “doing more with less” world is moving more and more in the direction of middle-out efforts. We can no longer afford to scrap the environment and start over from a clean sheet. This means that conflict is becoming both more prevalent and more important in our world.

Managed well, this conflict is healthy and can direct the design down the optimal path to success. That management is the responsibility of the leader. It takes skill and discernment to understand and manage healthy conflict.

Leaders must first understand that conflict arises in two arenas. There is substantive or “content” conflict as well as emotional conflict. They generally occur together and color each other. Content conflict is healthy and can lead to innovation and excellence as competing ideas are refined and polished against each other. Emotional conflict, on the other hand, can draw attention away from ideas and refocus on the attachments that promote inertia.

Leaders must learn to recognize and manage the emotional side of conflict while skillfully steering it away from jeopardizing the gains of the healthy, substantive exchange of ideas that characterize productive content conflict. This involves skills that can be learned and practiced but the first step is awareness.

Many conflict management training experiences begin the process of recognizing the value of healthy conflict by stressing that conflict is to be managed – NOT “resolved.” The word “resolved” implies that conflict should be eliminated when in reality the object is to limit the emotional component while fostering the “good’ conflict around substance.

It should come as no surprise that this management venture rests on the communication skills we discussed in our previous post. Communication is the backbone of the conflict management techniques needed to foster healthy conflict and reap its benefits. Systems engineers tasked with leading system solution design efforts need good communication skills as a foundation for solid conflict management.

Much of emotional conflict arises in the context of feelings around not being heard or valued or being outright disenfranchised. These perceptions can easily become the reality for those who share them and this acts to limit their willingness to engage in the substantive debates. Good communications skills enable the leader to create and maintain a safe space within which every person involved can feel secure enough to share their insights and perspectives.

As the leader learns and practices particular conflict management techniques, the importance of solid communication skills becomes evident. All, or nearly all, of the conflict management techniques depend directly on quality communication. The two skill sets are intertwined and critical.

Promoting healthy substantive debate and interaction is key to innovation and increasing the quality of the solutions produced by a design team. That promotion is the responsibility of the leader who creates the environment and tone of the debate. Conflict management skills are critical to the leader and the systems engineer who fills the leadership role would be well advised to acquire and sharpen those skills.

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