You work with people

or How I stopped the flame war and learned to play nicely

Projects are people

Let’s all scream “It’s people!!!” together now. If you don’t get the Soylent Green reference, you need to read a non-tech book and are not a true nerd, but for now I’ll forgive you. (Argue with me later on the Internet!) Really, though, all tech products are the result of an idea by a person, or a group of smart people, realized by the hard work of said person(s). If you can’t get along with people, take criticism, or work out conflicts with others, you’re going to have a bad time. Find another career, seriously.

There will never be a company that hires so well that people will agree on everything all the time. Give up on that thinking and learn how to be nice and behave like a grown-up when things don’t go your way. It’s not an easy task, I understand that. No one enjoys hearing that they are wrong, no one wants to compromise their technical or artistic principles. But everyone likes having a pay cheque and being employed, so we all need to be a little flexible from time to time.

How to handle conflict

Your first reaction is likely the wrong thing to do. Become one with that. Quell your inner 17-year-old and get ready to behave like a grown-up. This multi-step process should be able to help you through the need to rage at the world. I started out as a much more angry Erin, so I understand what you’re going through.

1. Eat something. In my experience, hunger anger, hanger, whatever you want to call it, is responsible for most office arguments. I will not hold a meeting before lunch that does not include snacks for this reason. When you are in the groove of coding, designing, QAing, or whatever it is that you do, you might have forgotten to eat something. So go get something to eat and see if you’re still super mad in 45 minutes.

2. Drink a glass of water. Not coffee, not tea, not a multi-chemical power drink. Water helps flush toxins from your system, including anxiety, which can be a problem when you’re going into fight-or-flight mode. Caffeine will only amp you up, and the same goes for sugar. Drink a bottle of water and take a walk around the block, or office. Then come back to deal with the situation.

3. Tell yourself a story. Write it all out: what are you mad about; what did they say or do; what are three constructive things you can do to solve the situation; do you have any compromises; and what workplace policies do you think would help prevent these arguments in the future (if relevant).

4. Vent quietly. Write out all the things you’re mad about and can never tell anyone without looking like a jerk, print it, shred it, burn it, or make a paper airplane and throw it from the roof top of your building (so long as you did not name names in your document).

Now that you’ve calmed down, you are ready to talk to the person about your issue. If you are in a meeting while this is all happening, you might want to say something along the lines of, “I need to think more on that topic and get back to you,” so you can find time to calm down. But calm the fuck down, already. Take your positive inputs from telling yourself a story, make a list of things you need to go over, and get ready to be constructive.

1. Don’t make it personal. Focus on the impact on your work quality, timeline, potential money expended, user experience or project. Saying “this is stupid” will not help you. You are trying to get your way, so sell your idea.

2. Practice, practice, practice. Role-play what you want to say to the person you’re annoyed with before you talk to them. If you feel prepared and have bounced the idea off a buddy in advance, you’re more likely to be calm when you talk to the person with whom you have the conflict.

3. Choose your words carefully. Avoid telling people what they should do; instead focus on what is good for the project. No one likes to be told what they should be doing within the realm of their specific talent. They are the expert, and you are someone annoying them. So take that out of the equation altogether.

4. Listen to what the other person is telling you. Hearing Charlie Brown’s teacher’s voice in your head will not solve the problem. Incorporate what the person is telling you into your plan to solve the problem. If you have never heard Charlie Brown’s teacher’s voice, you are so young. Go to YouTube, and find it.

5. Compromise. This is the thing where you are capable of changing your mind a little. Be willing to do it. This is not a feature of life that will go away.

I need an adult

You have tried your very best to deal with the conflict on your own, and the person with whom you’re having issues with is not playing well with others. This happens to the best of us. Now you have to escalate your problem up the chain of command. This can be tricky. I like to have a documented state of what I’ve done to try and solve the problem along with my potential solutions. I always have a point form list with me to talk about so that I cover all the things I want to say and not get flustered in the heat of the moment.

Picking the right person to whom to escalate is very, very important. Often the project manager, if available, is that person. They are there to deal with team conflicts and are supposed to be in charge of project harmony (at least that’s how I viewed it). If you are in a small company, or the project manager is the person with whom you have a problem, a tech manager is a good choice. The key is not to jump a million ranks just because you have a good relationship with the CEO, or to start with HR. Give someone a chance to help you solve your problem without turning up the knob on the sucky-situation volume to 10.

When talking to the person, be calm and clear about your issues. Being the calm reasonable person always helps you win in the end. But do make sure that you feel you are being heard too. If you don’t feel that you were understood, there is a larger chance that the issue will continue later on down the line.

Girls vs Boys

You work with people. Not guys and girls. You are in a workplace, or conference, or in a space station — I don’t care. Regardless of who has what junk, if you can’t look at someone without thinking about humping them, that’s your problem. Get a therapist, for real. You potentially were raised improperly, or maybe you came about this problem all on your own (how you got there is not important to anyone but your therapist). If you can’t stand to be managed by someone of a specific gender, there is something wrong with you that you need help to deal with. Ditto on dealing with sexual orientation. It’s not them, it’s you.

If you are being sexually harassed by someone on your team, begin with the chain of command. It’s very important that you get some perspective from others before going straight to HR. Lots of people have different levels of what they consider harassment. I am a terribly raunchy woman. My family has a lot of truck drivers and rednecks who scoff at being politically correct, so I give more leeway than most. But I know that everyone has the right to feel safe and secure in their work place. Your concerns are super valid and they need to be addressed. Give a manager the opportunity to talk to someone about their behaviour and give the person the opportunity to change their behaviour. Some people are just oblivious about how their words affect others. Obviously, if someone has physically assaulted you, you need to shut that down completely. But still, go to the manager first and tell them that you want to file a complaint with HR, so that they are aware of the issue and they should help you through the process. If they don’t, this is when it’s fine to jump the chain of command and protect yourself.

Someone is wrong on the Internet

“But Erin, while I can completely hold my tongue in person, it seems as though when I have the anonymity of the Internet on my side, I become a complete douche canoe!” I agree, fighting on the Internet starts out as fun. I have argued far too long on threads in my youth and have got caught up in the trap of knowing someone is terribly, terribly wrong. You just have to ask yourself a few things:

1. Are you actually trying to change their mind?
2. Will calling them a Nazi of some variety do that?
3. Are you arguing constructively?
4. Have threats been involved in the argument at all?
5. Has it escalated to name calling?
6. Does the topic of your argument actually matter at all in real life?

If you answered ‘no’ to any of 1-3 and 6, or ‘yes’ to 4 or 5, turn off your computer and read a book. Draw something. Cook some food. Go through all the tasks you’d do in having an in-person conflict listed above. If you really just need the adrenaline rush, “go ride bikes” or go for a run. Try doing something constructive. Arguing on the Internet, instead of having an adult debate is only ever destructive. You got into this industry to create things, right? So stop being a person who tears everything down. If you realize that you cannot help yourself, stop reading the comments. By not doing so, I feel that I have a happier and more fulfilled life. Change comes from within, and sometimes people will just be wrong. Let it go. I know it sucks.

Don’t be a dongle

One of the steps in avoiding conflict is to be respectful of others and to have empathy. If your empathy is broken (I know these people), fake it. Everyone is trying to do a good job, and they all have valid reasons for why they do and do not want to do something. Find out what that reason is. Approach your co-workers as team members and not barriers to completing your task.

Seems like a lot of work, hey? It is. Being an adult and working productively isn’t easy. That’s why being a project manager is like being a referee for knife-wielding toddlers. But it’s better to do the work than end up in a knife fight covered in poop.

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