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Understanding Conflict (The Pragmatic Testing)

On March 2, 2013, in Syndicated, by Association for Software Testing
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As humans, we see a lot of conflicting views, ideas and situations in our daily lives, whether it is personal or professional. Conflict is seen as an undesirable act which is often taken with negativity. As testers, we deal (face) with conflict often due to the nature of our jobs. We find defects in someone’s work and believe me, no one likes to see errors in their creation. 

We report issues, not just to people who create software; but we report problems to everyone in the project teams. Sometimes sending those report right to the senior management. Now, do you think we can still avoid conflicting situations where a developer or her supervisor likes to see the reports from you? I think we can.

It is not just about reporting defects. Some time back I faced a conflicting situation where some project manager disagreed with the approach of testing that I proposed because he believed I was taking too much time testing a simple software. It did not matter to him that the software was new, to be used as a critical system and that the development supplier had a history. I was told that I just have to ensure that the software works. I did not get a response when I said that my job was to see in which scenario the software does not work. Eventually I got an agreement on the test approach. 


It is very important to learn how to resolve or deal with conflicts, as learning this art can lead to positive changes and/or improvements in relationships. Especially for us testers it is a ‘must have’ traits. When I hire testers, I ensure that they have strong communication skills, positive attitude and an aptitude to learn more. Technical skills are important, but if a tester does not know how to manage the person in whose work she is finding defects, or how she is communicating the bad news, she will only make enemies. 

So what are Conflicts?

First of all, conflicts are NOT problems; and there is no such thing as ‘constructive conflict’.

Referring to Merriam Webster, as an Intransitive verb conflict is defined as, to be different, opposed, or contradictory : to fail to be in agreement or accord”. 

In psychology, a struggle resulting from incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes, or demands. Interpersonal conflict represents such a struggle between two or more people, while internal conflict is a mental struggle. A child experiencing internal conflict, for example, may be dependent on his mother but fear her because she is rejecting and punitive.

How to deal with conflict?

Understanding the theory of conflict helps in resolving the situations. 

Sometime ago, I read Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) theory. Thomas & Kilmann identified five main styles of dealing with conflicts in 1970. These styles vary in degrees of cooperativeness and assertiveness. They suggested that most people have a preferred style of dealing with conflict, however different styles are useful in different situations.  They created TKI which helps identifying the best suited style when conflict arises. These styles are:

1. Accommodating: This style suggests a willingness to meet others’ needs by sacrificing one’s own needs. As an accommodator, you know when to give in, or you can be persuaded to surrender. This style can be useful when you know that your winning is not important, or the matter is more important to the others. For example, if your company wants to release the product with a known high severity defects because not releasing means loss of cost and/or reputation, you’d probably accommodate because the immediate need is more important. You might get an agreement for a fix in later releases, though.

2. Avoiding:  The style indicates a tendency to entirely evade the conflict. You must have seen those test leads, managers and testers who either delegate the defect triage meetings, or avoid going to such meetings or do not like to discuss career related issues with subordinates. They simply avoid conflict. They also do not want to hurt anyone’s feelings. However, if it is not your style, it may be useful in situations where winning is not possible, or the issue is too trivial or where someone is in a better position to solve it.
If you are in a conflicting situation with a 200 pound bouncer in a pub and you are hardly 100 pounds, would you like to fight or avoid the situation? Hah, I heard you! In a more real situation,similar to point # 1, if the CIO of your company commands something, would you like to be in a conflicting situtation with him/her or would avoid it?

3. Collaborative: This is my style to deal with conflicts. This style indicates that you are willing to involve and listen to all in order to meet their needs. This style is useful when you know that by collaborating with other you will get a better solution to the problem. This style also allows variety of viewpoints for a problem and can bring out the best solution. This might not be a best style if a decision needs to be taken immediately and you have no time to collaborate with others. For example, there is a high severity incident in the production environment which has rendered the website down. Would it be smart to call everyone to discuss or to take a decision if that resolves?

4. Competitive: People preferring this style normally know what they want and take a firm stand. It may be due to authority, position of power, expertise etc.This style can be useful in an emergency where a decision must be made. It may also be used when the decision is not popular but must be taken. This style sometimes leaves people with hard feeling or unsatisfied. Many of us must have seen the situation when a team member was not listening to them and they had to take a stand to get things done.

5. Compromising: A compromise is something in which everyone is expected to give up something. There is a partial sense of satisfaction. But sometime we all need to compromise in order to resolve the situation even though we know that the decision has not satisfied everyone. I am unable to think of an example at this moment (it’s 2 AM), but I am sure many of us have been in situations where we had to compromise.

Understanding these styles help us resolve conflicting situations. It depends entirely on the context when to use which style. A mix use is also possible. Depends on you!

Learning about different styles has helped me tackle conflicting situations better. I find it easier to manage the situation appropriately as I just don’t depend on my preferred style anymore. 
 

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