Conflict resolution

I disagree with the decision to…

I disagree with the idea that…

Disagreements about decisions are a healthy part of team collaboration. By challenging each other individually, our team collectively discovers the best solution.

Disagreeing with a decision

When you are challenging a decision, it is important to do so in a constructive way. Failure to do so may lead to interpersonal conflict.

Here is a process that you can follow to disagree with a decision productively.

  1. Proactively try to understand the decision by reviewing available information (Slack conversations, RFCs).
  2. Start a conversation with the decision maker. In this conversation:
    • Communicate what information you reviewed in (1) and ask the decision maker to share any information or context that is missing from what you reviewed.
    • State clearly that you disagree with the decision and your top 3 reasons for disagreeing. Share why you think these concerns are important or impactful.
    • Ask the decision maker how they are thinking about tradeoffs and what they are optimizing for.
    • Listen actively.
  3. Choose a course of action:
    • Agree and commit to the decision.
    • Disagree and propose an alternative solution. If your proposal is not accepted, choose a different option.
    • Disagree and commit to the decision. Document in an appropriate location (e.g., comment in the relevant Slack thread or relevant RFC) your disagreement, reasons for disagreeing, and the fact that you are committing to the decision.
    • Disagree and perform a clean escalation.

Interpersonal conflict

I don’t like working with $NAME because…

Interpersonal conflict is normal and natural; however, if left unresolved, it can be harmful to the health and productivity of our team. If you are having difficulties working with a teammate (or suspect a teammate is having difficulties working with you), then you should proactively work to resolve the situation by having a direct conversation with the person you are in conflict with. Nonviolent communication1, 2 is a useful tool for having productive conversations.

If you are unable to resolve the conflict directly with the other person, then perform a clean escalation.

Building a shared understanding

Building a shared understanding is a useful way to prevent and resolve conflicts. It is also a prerequisite for a clean escalation.

You have a shared understanding with another person if:

  1. They can describe your point of view accurately.
  2. You can describe their point of view accurately.

A shared understanding only requires that you understand the other person’s point of view. You do not need to agree with the other person’s point of view.

Here is a script you can use to build a shared understanding:

  1. Alice asks Bob to explain his point of view.

    It seems like we are in conflict about X. Could you please explain your point of view to me?

  2. Bob explains his point of view.
  3. Alice asks any questions that she has about Bob’s point of view so that she can better understand it. Alice does not challenge Bob’s point of view, even if she disagrees with Bob. She is only seeking to understand.
  4. Alice says “I heard you say (repeat what Bob said). Is that right?”
  5. Bob either says “Yes” (and then the conversation repeats with the roles swapped), or he clarifies his point of view (and then Alice continues the conversation by repeating steps 3 and 4).

If, after establishing a shared understanding, both parties are still unable to move forward, then they should start a clean escalation.

Clean escalation

Clean escalation is a process that can be used when there is a disagreement on the team about how to best pursue the organizational mission.

The mechanics are simple.

  1. Two people have a conflict.
  2. They attempt to resolve the conflict directly with each other.
  3. If they can’t resolve the conflict, then they come to a shared understanding of the situation and agree to cleanly escalate the conflict to their manager(s) together.
  4. The manager(s) verify that the pre-conditions for a clean escalation (i.e., the previous two steps) have been met.
    1. If so, the manager(s) can engage in a conversation to help resolve the conflict.
    2. If not, the manager(s) do not get involved in the conflict, and instead ask the involved parties to follow this documented clean escalation process.
  5. If the manager(s) are not able to resolve the conflict, they can cleanly escalate to the next level of management. This process continues until the issue is resolved.

The clean escalation process is based on LinkedIn’s clean escalation policy that Fred Kofman wrote about in How to Escalate Disagreements Cleanly – A Coaching Conversation. The inline video walks through an edge case to give a better insight into how this process works in practice. It is worth watching before you initiate your first clean escalation.