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Human Skills 028 - Conflict and Swagger
with Kate Cox
After a career at the intersection of UX design and front end development, Kate Cox became a manager in early 2020, one of the most tumultuous times in recent history. Since then she has been through a roller-coaster of management, everything from managing an existing team to building new teams to now leading a whole department.
In our conversation, there were two overwhelming themes: Handling conflict, and leading with swagger. Handling conflict is one of the fundamental jobs of a manager, and we talked about ways to reframe it, how to use it as a way to learn about others, and when to walk away. Conflict is an uncomfortable topic for many of us, but there are some great concrete tactics you can use to get better at it.
Our other theme is a little more vague but Kate mentioned that some of the best leaders she has worked with all had a certain swagger to them, and we spent most of the second half of the conversation breaking down what that meant. We talked about building the confidence to make decisions in uncertainty, own up to what you don't know, and maintain a certainty that you and your team will get through whatever is thrown at them.
On handling conflict as one of the most important skills in the workplace:
No matter who you are, being comfortable with conflict and comfortable with that negotiation is a skill that will always serve you well. And what I mean is, specifically: people talk a lot, you hear people saying, "I don't like conflict," "I'd rather avoid conflict," or, "I don't do conflict well", can you handle this kind of thing? You hear that a lot from ICs a lot, but also even from other managers as well.
So I think a lot of people just avoid things altogether. And I sort of shudder to think about the number of problems that could have been solved if people had approached conflict from the idea that conflict is an opportunity.
I know that sounds like super trite to say, but just that conflict is an opportunity to build a better relationship. Some of the best working relationships I have were with people that we butted heads all the time. And it was always done with respect, right? But we were just usually on different sides of the fence, had different things and different priorities that we both had. We were both trying to do our best for the project. We were just coming at it from different sides. And so ultimately those discussions and those points of conflict strengthened our relationship over time.
There's a number of ways you do that. There's, one, you have to know what kind of person you are and how you handle conflict. And so self-reflection is really important, we could talk about that a bit, but also knowing what they want and what they are trying to achieve out of a particular interaction.
One of the things specifically, I think has been helpful for me. If you've ever listened to Kwame Christian, he gives a great TED Talk on this, on conflict, but he talks about compassionate curiosity. And one of the key things there is inviting people to tell you their side of the story. What are they trying to achieve? And not in any sort of a, like, "what are you trying to do here?" But just a, like, "I really wanna know. I really wanna help you. I wanna come to an agreement with you."
And taking it as an opportunity to learn about somebody as opposed to we have to get this done, I need to win, is a drastic difference in how you approach conflict. I wish it was talked about more. And I wish conflict was talked about in that way because I think if more people approached negotiations in that way, things would be a lot smoother. We'd have stronger relationships a little bit easier just across the organization.
On reframing conflict to target problems, not people:
I think it's the difference, if I were to boil it down, it's the difference between "either I win or you win," and instead it should be, "okay, either we both win or we don't play at all."
We need to find a way to both succeed here. I think that's really like what it comes down to. And that does take time. That takes time, it takes effort. I know when people look at how daunting that can be.... People say that's just a lot of work, I don't wanna engage, right?
And then you get back into that kind of avoider kind of mentality for conflict, but it is important and you end up better off because of it with stronger relationships, with better understanding. And really for your team as well, for the managers that are kind of engaging in this, making sure you've got the full story and you're protecting your team with all of that information.
How do you bring someone from an adversarial mindset into a collaborative approach to conflict?
It’s tough, right? I mean, I think it comes down to understanding the person you're dealing with and their motivations. I think the first thing I'd say is, try to understand where they're coming from and what they're trying to achieve. And there are going to be cases, there's no one recipe for how to handle conflict because every situation's going to be different and every person's going to be different. And sometimes people just have bad days, right? It happens.
And so I think being, first off, being as clear as possible and as much as you can, removing the emotional piece. Like you talked about, people tend to make it about you and I. And like it's a personal failing.
It's where you get into, I'm sure other people have talked about this on the podcast, but you know, a blameless culture, remove specific people from blame, talk about we, invite that other person as like, we are a team.
Even the small things about how you talk about the problem and talk about the solution, inviting people into being a team with you is pretty important. Making sure you are, I will sometimes bring up a word document and be like, okay, let's talk through the requirements together. Help me understand. Like, I'm gonna write it down, you dictate, let's go.
And so as much as you can, separating the emotion out of it is really important and probably a good first step. It's not always gonna succeed and sometimes there are cases where you need to make a judgment call and you might have to clean it, clean up that relationship a little bit later, but when you can and if you have time, I think it's important to spend the time trying to negotiate.
You brought up that the best leaders you've worked with have a swagger to them - what do you mean by that?
Yeah, mostly it's a confidence, right? How you present... I mean, first and foremost, I think part of it is having the confidence that you've honed your good instincts, that you were put into this position for a reason, that you're able to make decisions.
You might not on the inside feel very confident, but knowing that the way you present yourself, like are you wringing your hands constantly? Are you able to make decisions, based on feedback and seeking diverse perspectives and everything else, but are you able to effectively make a decision? Or are you constantly questioning every single time you do? People notice that.
And there's a difference between engaging others in a discussion to a final solution and letting other people make the decisions for you. [Leaders like] Lauren, Bradford, very good at making that decision. Very good at engaging other people in that decision, but ultimately the decision is theirs.
I think also leadership can get overwhelming. We talk about churn, we've talked about churn and my own career path has been wild over the last few years, but just the knowledge that things get better. The churn is temporary and knowing that looking back, we will have found a solution, things are going to get better. And keeping that in mind as well, I think, as you go forth in your career, that becomes more and more apparent. It doesn't make it easier at the moment, but having that confidence is pretty key. And again, it's hard to define, but I do think it's something people see.
On why confidence letting you move through uncertain decisions is important:
No decision is also a decision, frankly, and it paralyzes people. And so sometimes you do just have to pick a direction. The thing that I tell my ICs all the time... I get a lot of questions about, "I have a problem" or like, "how do I solve it?" Especially in skip levels, like, "hey, I have a suggestion. I have a thing that I'm thinking about, or I have a problem, what should my next steps be or what should I do?"
And often I'll say I don't know the answer. And often the next thing I'll say is, you don't have to have the answer, but you do need to have at least a next step. You do need to show that you've at least thought about a potential solution or a potential direction to go to. That is really valuable to leadership. Valuable to me as a manager certainly, because that will help me make my decision.
But even for me presenting to my higher ups and to my leaders, I might not have the answers. Things get really, really complicated as you go further and further up the chain. There's more and more dependencies that you're trying to account for. But what is your next step? Sometimes that's the only answer you need. And that gets you moving forward. But yeah, to stagnate would be the worst.
How do we hold on to swagger while also being humble?
Yeah, great question. So I'll clarify, I think when I say swagger or confidence, it's not so much somebody that is like, "I have the answers, I know it all." That's not what I mean there. There's certainly people that I've met that are like that... Those are not fun people to work with.
What I mean by confidence... I think it's still just as valuable to me to work with somebody that's like, "This is my decision. It's a grand experiment, and we'll see what happens. I don't have all the answers, but this is where we're going with. And we'll make adjustments on the way. "
And that's fine. That answer right there, just as important, still shows a lot of confidence, even though you don't have all the answers and you are being very transparent about that.
I think often people confuse, "we can't tell people that we don't know what we're doing" or "we don't have an answer." They wanna hide that from people. And I think it's more valuable when you can to be really transparent about, "these are the things I'm thinking about, this is the decision I made, it's a path forward, let's go. Let's try to figure it out together."
Links to Kate
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