They had to be physically separated, in front of the supplier’s team watching in disbelief.
Let’s find out what happened, why and what we can learn from it to prevent and manage conflict in engineering teams and how to foster innovation and healthy collaboration.
This is a true story. It all happened in Germany, back in 2011.
My client, an high tech manufacturing company, had been shortlisted as a potential supplier for a tech company that I prefer not to name.
My client was working on a strategic proof of concept for which their potential customer had high expectations. But things were not moving forward quickly enough for them, so they sent some of their own engineers over to my client to provide assistance.
8 engineers walk into a room … [chuckling]
I remember the setting of the specific meeting that went wrong. There were 4 engineers of each company facing each other, discussing the blockers and the appropriate course of action.
At a certain point, two of the guys from the tech company got into a heated technical debate stemmed from a different view on the solution to implement. It quickly transformed into a fight, which escalated to such a level that they ended up standing nose to nose. They were clearly ready to punch each other!
The tension in the room was surreal! Hopefully, before they could start punching, their 2 colleagues jumped in and physically separated them. The rest of us completely froze. We were absolutely flabbergasted.
What actually happened? How could two smart men completely lose their composure and make such a terrible show in front of a supplier? It’s actually more common than you would think.
How to prevent conflict between engineers in high pressure environment?
What makes engineers want to punch each other in the face and totally lose control in front of their colleagues and suppliers?
It is safe to assume that those two guys were not friends. They probably felt like rivals rather than allies. And they were under pressure, which — as we all know — is very effective in making people lose control and act irrationally.
But to blame the feud between these two men only on stress and resentment would be an incomplete explanation. There was something else that sparked the argument—something more consequential than those emotions.
Let’s explore the basics of conflict resolution and see how engineers are more likely to struggle with it than others.
The 4 Levels of Communication
There are 4 levels of communication: content, process, relationship and emotion.
This is where you talk about the facts. It’s objective, logical and factual.
This is where you talk about how things should be done or what needs to happen next to make sure something is done properly (or even just at all).
This is where you talk about how people feel about each other, what their relationship history is like and what it means for them to work together as a team or group toward a common goal (or not).
This is where you talk about how people feel about themselves or their work.
Quite often, when people, especially technical people, have an argument about content, the problem is not really in the area of content, but rather in the area of relationship. As I wrote above, the two engineers didn’t like each other very much.
Engineering schools teach us to solve problems in the field where they occur. So when dealing with a mechanical problem, we, engineers, tend to look for a mechanical solution. So you might assume that if we have a cooperation problem, we will try to solve it by talking about our relationship and how to collaborate better. Right?
Interestingly enough, most of the time, that’s absolutely not what’s happening.
When we are in a fight, you will rarely hear us telling each other:
“What about our relationship? What about our cooperation? As it is obviously not working!”.
What you’ll hear much more often is:
“What you wrote there is incorrect” “My solution is better”
We tend to focus on content.
Almost everybody does that. But engineers are the best at it and the reason is simple. When you go into a conflict, you choose your strongest ground, the field you are the most comfortable with. And engineers obviously feel stronger talking about engineering matters than talking about relationship and emotions!
Most of us prefer talking about content and a little bit about process, because that’s where we feel safe. If we have to tell things like “I don’t like your behaviour” or “I don’t get what I need from our cooperation”, then we have to show our feelings. Engineers rarely talk about their feelings and tend to get grumpy when forced to do so because that is something that we, among all people in the office, feel very uncertain about.
The reason people sometimes want to “punch each other in the face” is the fear of discussing relationship and expressing feelings, making it hard for them to understand each other’s reactions, behaviour and intentions which leads to resentment, frictions and frustration for everyone involved.
Conflict resolution is a key skill for engineers to have. It’s important for them to understand how others perceive them and their actions so that they can adjust their behaviour accordingly which can only happen by talking about it.
In that meeting we saw that the friction between those 2 engineers got so high that they needed to be physically separated.
The Role of Company Culture in managing conflict in engineering teams
Another factor leading to the escalation of a conflict into a fight is the company culture.
When my client’s company culture was based on harmony, the culture of that tech company was oriented toward competition. Harmony and competition are two sides of the same coin; both are needed for collaboration to thrive.
Conflict is an inevitable part of any team, but it doesn’t have to be destructive. In fact, conflict can be the catalyst for growth! This might sound counterintuitive, but conflict is actually vital for healthy collaboration.
However, one thing that can never be overlooked is respect. And this is hugely influenced by the company culture and even more by the behaviour of its leaders.
When employees see their leaders using power plays and dominance with suppliers to reach company goals, or when employees receive instructions to act in a similar way with providers, they receive the message that those behaviours are compatible with the company values.
It’s no surprise to see some of them adopting those same behaviours when encountering conflicts with their colleagues.
I never worked directly with the Dutch tech company, but I did assist at several meetings for my clients who were their providers. I have seen that kind of behaviour from them many times, and I know how it has contributed to the escalation of that conflict into a fist fight.
Instead of using conflict and distrust as primary tools when working with providers, teams will be a lot more able to tackle problems and become more successful if they use collaboration to solve problems and build trust.