Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Kobayashi Maru of Office Relationships

In Star Trek II : The Wrath of Khan, we’re introduced to the Kobayashi Maru test.  In a nutshell it’s an unwinnable situation designed as a test of character.

I’m almost ashamed to say this, but I feel the same goes with some difficult office relationships.

In an ideal world there wouldn’t be any conflict at work.  Everyone would be utterly professional, and emotions would never flare up.  We’d always have plenty of time to do everything, and when we asked someone to help us, there would never be any other priorities.  This would be the development world of THX-1138!

Of course the reality is somewhat different, we’re always under some kind of stress, and the person we urgently need something from may have different priorities.  And lets face it, people can be just plain difficult sometimes for the hell of it.  I try generally in the office to follow the rule “treat others as you’d want to be treated” – but it doesn’t guarantee me an easy day in the office, because it’s not always a given that when you treat someone with respect you’ll get it back.

This is going to lead to office conflict.  We can say “we need to be professional about that”.  It’s kind of easy to be professional when the people you are dealing with are also professional.  When they’re not - or more specifically, when you feel they're not (professionalism is in the eye of the beholder) - of course it’s going to leave you or anyone in that position feeling emotional, and this is where the Kobayashi Maru test occurs.

But this is something common we all confront at some point – dealing with conflict.  When you’re faced with conflict there are two obvious, and polar opposite forms of response,

You can’t handle the truth

Someone has upset you, so you retaliate with all guns blazing.  It’s very much like Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men.

It feels at the time very good, at that moment you feel powerful and in command.  But if you’ve ever seen anyone explode like this, they always look like an ass.  It also crucially damages office relationships because often a lot of what’s spoken can’t be taken back.  Sometimes we might feel someone is being an idiot, but perhaps it’s something much better kept to ourselves.

The Paranoid android

“Oh what’s the use … they’re never going to listen to me”.  Much like Marvin the Paranoid Android, conflict is too scary, so keep quiet and just get on with it, and keep your head down.

Although this won’t damage relationships, it’ll damage you.  Feeling less a part of your job with less direction in what you’re doing, you’re essentially disempowering yourself.   You’re making yourself incredibly miserable, and worse still, you’re not conveying to others how unhappy you are about it and why.  So unless the people in the office are mind readers or ultra-perceptive, they can’t help you.

Not surprisingly given two extremes of behaviour the right way is somewhere in between.  With responding to any conflict in the office there are of course two factors going on – gain vs risk.  When we respond to conflict there’s a possibility of gain in our situation vs the risk of making a situation worse.  When we’re passive against conflict then we’re not going to risk making things worse, but neither are they ever going to get any better.

Here are what I think are tips to get the right feel for dealing with conflict,

Remain calm

Don’t get emotional, and don’t get dragged in.  Give yourself time.  As human beings we’re hard wired with our human intellect built on top of reptilian responses.  Reptilian aggressive responses are almost instantaneous.  Reasoned ones travel longer through your brain, almost building speed, and take typically 2-5 seconds longer.

So if you feel yourself about to snap back, try counting slowly to 5 and see if you’ve calmed down.  It gives your more reasoned responses time to kick-in.

Worse comes to worse, it’s better to bottle it than to burst.

Speak slowly

Kind of goes in with the remain calm scenario – but often when people are annoyed or agitated, they tend to speak a mile a minute.  This rapid patter tends not to help their argument, and comes over as a rant.  And just to make it harder, people don’t always follow what you say.

Don’t name call

You might think someone in your office is an idiot.  But calling them one to their face isn’t going to help you or change them.  Idiot / stupid / retarded.  Yup this one seems common sense doesn’t it …but  how many times have you still been in an office where someone has made this mistake?

Why do you want to call them an idiot?  “I think James is an idiot because he’s always delivering reports late, then changing them just as I start work”.

Better to remove the emotional and the name calling, “when your report is late like it was last week, it delays when we can start”

No time for threats

Well the obvious “do that again and I’m going to introduce you to my 9-iron” has no place.  But in conflict we can often fall back on an ultimatum.  “Do that again and you’re fired”, “speak to me like that again and I’ll leave”, or even “I’m going to tell on you”.

The problem with an ultimatum, it’s often delivered in an emotional state, and it represents a line in the sand, and almost a challenge.  If someone challenges that line, are you going to stick by what you said, or lose face?  When you give an ultimatum, it’s usually yourself you’re putting in a difficult position, not the other party.

Learn to bury the hatchet

It doesn’t do well to carry a grudge.  Making great software is stressful at times, and yes, emotional.

It reminds me of the times I’ve put on a play with amateur drama group.  On dress rehearsal night nothing works quite right, costumes split, props don’t work, people forget their lines and the director is screaming you’ve got it all wrong.

Rehearsal night is a cauldron of seething tension, everyone is getting on each others nerves, there are cries of “never working with you again”.  One week later the curtain falls on the last show, everyone hits the after-show party, and they’re hugging each other going “I know we don’t always see eye-to-eye but I think you’re really lovely”.  Oh yes and a lot of alcohol is consumed!

So what inspired this article?

Friday I have to admit wasn’t a good day, I had a run in with Paula one of my project managers.  I can’t claim to be 100% not at fault, but neither did I think she was being fair.  I was pretty upset and angry,  feeling my work is never really appreciated by Paula.  I spoke to her calmly that I didn’t feel helped by her, especially over issues of trying to get testing done early.  I didn’t speak my mind fully, but I was upset and felt some of what she said felt like a threat.

Back home I was giving serious thought to looking for another job based on this incident.  One unpleasant project manager can overshadow the other four project managers that I have a great relationship with.  Come Monday I came in feeling a bit weary, but with the emotional blinkers off she has complemented testing services at least 4 times this week, and it feels a bit like Friday never happened.  In the long run it’s just probably better to chalk it up to “one of those things” stressful development brings out, but be weary if it happens again.

After all we’d not appreciate being judged to harshly when we have a bad day …  The important thing to learn is workplace conflict like the Kobayashi Maru test doesn’t have winners.  It just shows the person you really are underneath and the person you can strive to be.

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