“We don’t really deal with difficult people well, I think so.”
It was a very foggy day in Hanoi, and while the rest of the team was taking a nap after lunch, as is custom in Vietnam, Hiroto and I were having a chat in the kitchen. As the only two foreigners in the office, we sometimes struggled with the difference in culture, and how to deal with people.
“There is not good coordination. We have problem with many projects. What do you think is root cause?” asked Hiroto.
Such an open question, with so many answers… I wasn’t sure what he was getting at, or whether he wanted to talk about a particular issue that he already had in mind. Just like Hiroto and I had trouble getting into the minds of the Vietnamese team mates, I had trouble getting into the mind of my Japanese colleague. I decided to throw the question back at him: “I don’t know. Do you have any hypothesis?”
“I think there is problem with some of the people in some teams”.
“Do you mean my team?” I asked, directly.
‘Maybe’ can mean ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in Japanese, but usually means that agreeing or disagreeing directly would be too forceful. I was getting somewhere. “Alright, I think I know who you are talking about. It’s about Roger, right?”. All our local staff adopt English or Japanese names, a practice I am not very keen on, since to me a name is a name.
“Not only Roger, but the relationship with the PM.”
Roger is one of our most senior developers. He has been in the company for many years, since the very beginning. He is a very proud character, and tends to work well with others since the more junior staff respect him, not because of his leadership or technical ability, but due to his seniority, something that is sadly very common in this part of the world. Recently he was asked to help one of Hiroto’s projects, which is being organised by Jane, a project manager. Unlike Roger, she is very direct, and does not hide her thoughts or try to soften her words. Not unheard of, but atypical of standard Vietnamese office culture.
Normally people tend to also respect Jane, as she is quite knowledgeable and capable, but Roger does not take the challenge to his way of thinking and working very well. She wants to know the status of his tasks, but he does not think she needs to know, and ends up avoiding her, or undermining her authority by asking the more junior staff to work on conflicting areas of the system. It’s a mess.
“I know about it. It’s not an easy situation. I have a team member who feels superior, and has a lot of self-confidence, and is determined to get his way. If he was not so certain about his knowledge, or the seniority, his dislike for Jane would not take the form of open conflict.”
“Yes, that is true. Likewise if Jane was not so direct and upfront. But I think it is better this way. If they were not in open conflict it could be more difficult to know of a hidden issue.”
“I agree. It does not help us solve this problem though. Do you think we should bring them both into a room and discuss?”
“Hmmm…” Hiroto looks sideways, and frowns, pausing for what seems like an eternity. “Maybe. Jane will find difficult, I think so.”
“Yeah? You think she will feel bad because she has to compromise?”
“Yes, I think so. We will need to talk to her first. She is good, but she is also proud.”
Conflict. You are sincere
And are being obstructed.
A cautious halt halfway brings good fortune.
Going through to the end brings misfortune.
It furthers one to see the great person.
It does not further one to cross the great water.
The greatest difficulty in resolving conflict is knowing how to find a common ground. If none of the parties is willing to meet halfway, there is little chance. It’s important for at least one of the parties to be clear-headed, inwardly strong, and know where to draw the line. If we are too stubborn and persist in our way, we might even win the battle, but we will perpetuate the enmity. We create a risk for the future.
“I will talk to Roger first, and you talk to Jane. I believe Jane can be more easily convinced to be malleable than Roger, so you would have to explain the situation to her. Then we arrange for a meeting with the four of us, what do you think?” I propose to Hiroto.
“Hmm… Maybe. I think it might be better if it is only one of us in the room with them. Do you agree?”
I guess what is in Hiroto’s mind. Since the company is Japanese, he is seen as having more authority with them than myself. He doesn’t want to say it, of course, but I get the hint. He is also right: it’s important that the person being the mediator is someone who is seen as having the necessary authority to decide on the common ground, if necessary.
“Alright, it makes sense. I do have a concern though. The team is going to decide on the next phase today. Do you think it’s wise to postpone this to early next week, after we have resolved this matter?”
“Oh, but that will delay the project. Why do you think this is necessary?”
“Well, I think that in times of conflict we should not embark on a new project, or decide on lasting changes. We need cooperation and consensus, so if there is still animosity, we create risk. Better that we avoid it, even if it means we might need to delay for a couple of days.”
“I see. OK, makes sense. I will talk to the team to postpone the meeting.”
This conversation got me thinking about how costly conflicts are. We shouldn’t have allowed the situation to develop to this state. Conflict never appears suddenly; it has inner causes. It is possible to remove the roots in advance. In all transactions with people we need to be wise, and watch for potential sources of conflict. I knew about Roger’s personality for a long time, but didn’t take prompt action. We will resolve this conflict now, but the underlying cause will remain.
I will have to deal with it sooner rather than later.