Is conflict wrecking your project? Welcome to The Feud

The Feud Anti-Pattern

The Feud Anti-Pattern

Picture this – you’re the CTO of a medium-sized company and you’ve just returned from a well-deserved holiday. You’re tanned, recharged, and full of energy, but when you walk into the office you realize something is wrong. Your employees are unusually quiet today. There’s an icy mood in the air, and everybody is hunched over their keyboards and not making eye contact. The place feels like a tomb.

You open Outlook and notice a message thread between Steve, the lead developer, and Bob, the DevOps manager:

Sent 09:12 from Steve to Bob
Here is the latest 1.20 release of our product. Roll this out to production now, and don’t mess it up like last time.

Sent 12:38 from Bob to Steve
Users are complaining about bad performance. Referring them all to you. Fix your release asap, execs are angry!

Sent 12:53 from Steve to Bob
My release is fine. I’m telling everyone the problem is at your end. You messed up again. Fix your servers! 

Sent 13:04 from Bob to Steve
I just talked to John, our VP of Sales, and he is not happy about your attitude. 

Sent 13:23 from Steve to CTO, cc-d to Bob
I’ve taken a look at our cloud, and I notice a lot of mistakes in how our servers are configured. This explains our terrible product performance….

Sent 13:23 from Bob to CEO, cc-d to Steve and CTO
I request a budget to hire an extra developer with experience in performance optimizing. I’ve noticed that the dev team is very weak on performance optimization, and this is hurting our bottom line…. 

….

Well, that escalated quickly, didn’t it? Welcome to The Feud.

What are the symptoms?

When a patient walks into a hospital with a fever, aching joints, and a red skin rash, a good doctor will immediately recognize these symptoms and realize that a chickenpox infection is likely.

Being a tech leader is no different. Technical organizations can also get sick from afflictions like anti-patterns. Each pattern comes with its own unique list of symptoms. A good leader will recognize these symptoms, quickly identify the anti-pattern, and start working on a cure.

Here are all the symptoms from the email thread that point to The Feud:

First of all, notice how Steve addresses Bob in his first email. He’s treating Bob as an employee and he is very condescending, which is one of the Four Horsemen of toxic communication.

Bob does not take this well. When he starts receiving complaints about performance, he doesn’t do any research to find out more. Instead, he immediately blames the code and refers all users back to Steve. This infuriates Steve, who blames Bob for misconfiguring the company cloud. He starts telling other people about the conflict to gain support. Bob does the same by turning the VP of Sales against Steve.

The conflict fully escalates when Steve emails the CTO about Bob’s servers, and Bob tells the CEO that Steve can’t write decent code. By the time the CTO comes back from holiday the mood is completely poisoned and people are no longer talking to each other.

Notice how the initial condescension sets off a chain reaction of escalating insults. Both Steve and Bob are probably corncobs, and neither knows how to de-escalate a feud. And when the argument starts heating up, they both try to mobilize their co-workers to support their side. This splits the company down the middle.

The root causes of The Feud

Let’s take a closer look at the root causes of The Feud.

A feud can easily arise between two corncobs because corncobs tend to dislike other corncobs. They will both dislike the extremely difficult personality of the other party, without realizing that they themselves are exactly the same. Corncobs often have an underdeveloped self-awareness and don’t realize that they are basically looking into a mirror.

A feud can also arise out of a disagreement between two equally powerful stakeholders who each want to take the project into a different direction. When both stakeholders become convinced that the other option is a fatal mistake, and neither is adept at finding a compromise, then their disagreement will quickly spiral out of control into a full-blown feud.

In organizations with a weak decision-making process, simple disagreements can quickly escalate. When the two feuding parties are unable to find a compromise, you need a third party to step in and use a robust decision-making process to break the deadlock and move forward. Organizations without such a process are at a distinct disadvantage.

And finally, feuds often break out in organizations with indifferent executives who encourage toxic communication and turn a blind eye to conflict. This is extremely callous behavior because a full-blown feud can easily paralyze an entire company.

How to fix the anti-pattern

Here’s what you will need to do to fix The Feud.

The first thing you need to do is tackle the toxic company culture. Executives who rant, criticize, and blame will create a toxic and fearful work environment, and you should have a zero-tolerance policy for this kind of communication. A culture free of toxic communication will encourage everyone to treat each other with dignity and respect and stop potential feuds in their tracks.

Another thing you can do is introduce a method for healthy decision-making. In a high-pressure environment, it’s very easy for disagreeing stakeholders to end up feuding. Fortunately, there are many tools you can use to find a compromise that both parties can live with. A good starting point is to use Force Field Analysis which maps and quantifies all forces acting in favor of, and against a particular decision.

You could also consider doing alignment work, which is based on the premise that you don’t need consensus to move forward. Stakeholders only need to agree on a set of goals they want to achieve, and can, in fact, disagree on how to implement them.

A typical alignment session would start by finding common ground, a shared goal to strive for. Then everybody gets an opportunity to voice their opinions and fears. A facilitator or leader will try to stimulate empathy by asking questions like “Bob, how does it make you feel to hear Alice say that?”.

Alignment allows everybody to be heard, and this removes a lot of friction from the discussion and allows the team as a whole to move forward. Not everybody will agree with how this is done, and that’s okay. What matters is that the team shares a common goal, and everyone realizes that their colleagues are all committed to that same goal.

And if all else fails, your final option is to split up the corncobs. Give them both new assignments that will no longer bring them in contact with each other.

Have you encountered the feud in your organization? How did that play out?

 

Would you like to know more? I’ve created a series of blog posts that look at each anti-pattern in detail. Each post is loosely inspired by actual events that happened during my 20-year IT career.

Take a look:


Also published on Medium.