Engineering Manager: Resolving Intrapersonal Conflicts
How manage intrapersonal conflicts
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In this article, a follow-up to the engineering manager series, we will talk about conflicts, common scenarios, and some tips on how to manage them in a professional environment. Conflict management is a complex topic and we will address it in a series of three articles, the first of which is this one.
People's conflicts are common in the professional day-to-day, some people might even say that conflict is not professional behavior, but of course, it is, as we are human so conflicts are inevitable. What makes the difference is how we manage these situations.
As engineering managers we must focus on people and the team, most of us have a technical background and technical education but not many of us have knowledge of people's behavior. Managing people is not creating a project plan, creating stories in a scrum dashboard, or applying the next trend methodology. It is more complex than that, there are three things that we need to understand:
- Each person or team is different and before applying any action we need to understand their personalities, cultural values, personal context, some tasks/responsibilities beyond their level, etc.
- The family context is sometimes very important, of course, they are not obliged to tell us about it because it belongs to their private life. For people who are going through a divorce or family illness, we need to have special empathy.
- We have limitations and sometimes we can not help them, in these cases we need support from other types of professionals such as professional coaches or physiologists.
- Managing huge teams means that managers will take many decisions that will be not aligned with part of the teams or people sometimes these scenarios can generate organizational conflicts.
Mental health is one of the main health problems in the occidental world, the technological sector is no exception. In the last few years, many articles have talked about mental health problems in our sector such as The Wall Street Journal or Business Insider. Nowadays many companies invest in mental health professionals as a continuous support of mental health and not only in some training during the years. Our duty is to support our teams but this does not mean that we have to do everything, many times we will need support from others colleagues or other kinds of professionals.
What Is Conflict?
A simple definition of a conflict situation is a bad relationship between people or between people and the organization that impacts the work environment and/or company goals. Conflicts are caused by different needs, opinions, personalities, interests, or egos.
The discussions around topics, usually are not conflicts and are necessary to improve and get the best version of our product, technical solution, or even ourselves. A discussion evolves into a conflict when it affects the dynamic of people, teams, or the organization for a period of time.
There are several conflict types but we will talk about interpersonal, intrapersonal, and organizational conflicts.
The Impact of Conflicts
Conflicts always have a negative impact on people, but in terms of company goals, they could be positive. Do not understand me wrong, I do not want to work in a company that promotes conflict as a way to achieve goals because I believe that people, team, and ethical values always have to be more important than the economics or company goals. But there are companies that promote this kind of situation, they believe that conflict has a positive impact based on financial metrics or goal indicators. There are many successful companies in financial, market absorption, and marketing terms that are applying or had applied this approach.
The following types of conflicts are what I have seen commonly during my professional career but of course, there are many more that we are not going to analyze in this article. The conflicts are organized in the following sections:
In this article we are going to talk about intrapersonal conflicts, the rest of the conflicts will be addressed in future articles.
This conflict is associated with people themselves, and usually, it is not generated by the current work environment. This means that these conflicts are generated by emotions, self-respect, past experiences, or stressful situations outside the work environment.
These are the most complicated conflicts, they are always long-term improvements and they will probably need support from other types of professionals.
Imposter syndrome is a psychological situation in which people believe that they are a fraud as professionals, this is caused by feelings such as self-doubt in their skills, talents, or accomplishment despite their experiences, successes, or knowledge. Today, people identify any lack of confidence with the impostor syndrome. I do not agree with that, there are situations where having a little lack of confidence is normal, like in our first career years, joining a new company, or changing our role in the company.
I have read many articles about the negative impact of people with impostor syndrome on a team's dynamics related to superhero behavior or spending more time on a task than necessary. But I have seen the opposite, they are people that are always helping others, continuously learning, spending personal time to get their goals, and usually paid below their performance. These kinds of people are the ones who usually leave the company before generating bad dynamics. They are really great professionals and when they leave the company and the team, we are losing a great value that is very complex to replace.
The most important thing as managers is that we must understand that this is a marathon, not a sprint. In the worst-case scenario, these people will require support from a specialist like a coach. So we must define actions in the short, mid, and long term and keep track of the progress consistently. This scenario well managed can be transformed into a great opportunity for personal and professional growth.
There are some tips that we can follow to support them.
- One-to-One: Increase the frequency of this meeting sometimes they need to talk with us more frequently. We can support them by analyzing their doubts and also providing another point of view. But it depends on each person because there are people for whom an increase in One-to-One frequency can generate more stress.
- Journey: Enjoy the journey and not be focused only on the goals. Goals are important of course, but it is also important to learn from the success and the mistakes, the obstacles overcome.
- See the forest instead of focusing on the tree: Take a look back at the last months or last year, this is something that we must promote in our teams. It´s important to promote also a retrospective reflection for these people about the achievements that the team has had and how they contributed to this success.
- Proper goals: Assign achievable but challenging goals, the goals have to be realistic. Many people with imports syndrome seek to improve their performance so setting simple goals will not help them. But setting unrealistic goals that promote sprint behavior is the worst thing that we can do as a manager. So we need to look for a balance and we must track these goals continuously with them.
- Encourage teamwork: To be in a team where they can find people with different levels of knowledge, working as a team, is the best way to face impostor syndrome because they can see that other people in the team have the same doubts, share their opinions and together find a solution. They must be teams with good dynamics and work in an environment of trust without fear of sharing their doubts.
- Mentor: Having a mentor who has had similar experiences that can help them with comparable situations can be an important support. This mentor must be someone who needs to be seen as a reference, they need to have good soft skills, obviously, not everyone can be a mentor.
While mentors and teamwork are powerful tools, we have to make sure that the team and/or the mentor is the correct one, as setting the incorrect one can increase their stress.
There are people that have continuous doubts about the next step in their careers. These doubts could be related to:
- Fear to get out of their comfort zone.
- They are looking for a salary improvement and they do not see a clear roadmap in their current career path.
- They need new challenges because their work is too monotonous at present.
- There are people that after being promoted to global contributors find out that they do not like managing the scenarios of the new role.
- People measure their recognition in the company based on promotions so they are always looking for the next one.
The main side effect is the demotivation of people, which can spread to the team depending on the situation. For example, the engineer that has been promoted to manager when realizing that they do not like their new role, in some cases, can project their frustrations into the team. These kinds of promotions usually are related to people who believe that the only way to improve their salary is a promotion to manager.
This is a situation where we have been sometimes in our professional careers, so we must start empathizing with them and sharing our experiences. They must know that this is a normal situation, no matter at what point of our professional career we are.
- Why: We need to understand what are the reasons for their doubts and why they are looking for a change in their career path. Often it is a self-awareness exercise.
- False Restrictions: Sometimes people create false restrictions like the salary promotions are strongly liked to a manager's path. Nowadays the salary between managers and technical engineers are very aligned.
- Shadowing: People usually idealize other roles based on false expectations such as more capacity to take decisions, provide more value, work on more innovative projects, etc... When we identify these kinds of situations allowing them to have a shadowing period of time could be very useful. They can see how is the day-to-day and have more information to make an informed decision.
- Skills: There are situations in which people have a very clear next step but they do not have the knowledge, technical skills, or soft skills. The career path has to provide the requirements and also a guide to get it. Not all companies have this information available and it depends on many factors such as company sizing or the culture of the company.
Lack of Self-Confidence
It could be a characteristic of impostor syndrome, but there are many people who have no confidence in themselves and some of them constantly interpret that other people are doubting their decisions or questioning them.
People react differently to these situations:
- People for whom it is a problem of professional growth. They are stuck in the same role all their professional careers.
- People who automatically put themselves in a defensive position generate another kind of conflict.
- Managers that have lack self-confidence and have a defensive position can destroy a team and spread toxic culture across teams.
This is very similar to those we have applied to impostor syndrome. Lack of self-confidence could be caused by many factors and most of them are out of our scope as managers. More than ever, a positive approach to increase confidence, especially in complicated situations.
We have to pay special attention to global contributors' roles, the moment we identify defensive behavior we will need to address it with close mentoring. In my opinion, a lack of self-confidence could be a stopper or contraindication to becoming a manager.
Management of Uncertainty
This is one of the common problems in management and tech lead roles, especially in companies that have to react in an agile way to achieve goals like startups. Usually, people would like to manage certain matters and have a plan and a clear path to follow. Probably some reader is thinking about agile methodologies but this is not about building agile software. It is more about:
- Changing the roadmap several times because you have to adapt to the worldwide scenario.
- There is a global pandemic and an entire business plan has changed.
- There is a very large growth in the company and constant organizational changes.
- The financial statement is always managed in the short to medium term.
- Opportunities may come along that have a major impact on the roadmap.
All these things not only affect your professional life but also your personal life.
In my opinion, uncertainty generates a lot of stress, people stop focusing on their tasks which eventually leads to it becoming a big demotivator. It can also generate a negative impact on the solution architecture or on the developed software components such as:
- Over-engineering to solve future problems that we don't know about.
- The possibility of short-term changes makes us develop less efficient processes that could lead to technical debt.
This is one of the conflicts in which we can be a great support to our teams:
- One-to-One: Listening, understanding their concerns, and supporting them to be focused on what they can manage. Review with them what are the priorities and the aspects to which we should pay more attention.
- Reading time: There are many references in history that can help people to manage these situations. Books regarding stoicism, biographies of great leaders like Nelson Mandela, or inspiring books such as The Goal.
- Transparency: Being clear with people about the reasons for changes and the challenges that we have to face is very important.
- Reality: Motivation is very important, it provides a positive message, and creates amazing challenges. But it is also important, to be honest about the complexity of the road and be prepared to face the challenges.
There will be always obstacles on the road, we have to support our teams to overcome them.
Most of our work focuses on people conflict management however usually our learning path has generally been focused on development methodologies, project management, and technical knowledge. As managers, our goal is to support our team in obtaining the best possible performance, achieving goals, and doing all this while taking care of people's health.
It is important to acquire more knowledge regarding people coaching to support our engineers in dealing better with these kinds of situations. In high-stress environments, we definitely need the help of a professional to help the people across all the teams.
Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.