The age-old issue of conflict in the workplace: there are many reasons why we choose to avoid it, but what if we engaged with it effectively instead? In this ProductTank San Francisco talk, Parul Goel, Group Product Manager for Marketplaces at PayPal, evaluates workplace conflict following a particularly challenging conflict of her own.
When Parul accepted a promotion at PayPal, she was “in a good space”. With growing responsibilities and a larger sphere of influence, she felt motivated and capable: excited to make a difference. Then, conflict hit her out of nowhere – catching her by surprise when all else was well.
The conflict came from the engineering team and it began when she addressed the timeline aspect of the product roadmap. Her colleague Mike, a new engineering manager, refused to answer her questions about the timeline because “the leadership says so”. Parul thought her engineers deserved a better answer than that, but she did not act on it; she stayed quiet, and kept her anxieties private. As time went on, the conflict got worse. Her colleague began interrupting her. He also challenged the priorities she set for the team.
Still, Parul made excuses for him. Her first thought was “I can ignore it – he is new, he will learn”, but her colleague’s disregard of transparency and co-operation bothered her. Something didn’t make sense: Parul had been with the company and team longer, she knew what the product did – why did she allow herself to be dismissed? When she looks back, she realises she was hesitant to engage with the conflict.
Why Don’t we Engage in Conflict?
Parul identified three reasons why she avoided conflict with her engineering manager:
- Credibility Issues. Parul sees herself as a generalist at work. During the conflict, she questioned her credibility to challenge her engineer because he was a specialist.
- The Brand. Marketplace PayPal is a brand which Parul “protects with her life”. On this occasion, she didn’t want to be confrontational in case her behaviour tarnished the brand.
- Stress. As a non-confrontational person, Parul went to great lengths to avoid a dispute. While some people thrive off arguments and debates, others, like Parul, feel anxious of conflict and are quite weary of it. To combat the stress, she ignored the conflict in the hope it would go away. Although this may work for smaller conflicts, the same cannot be said for large ones; Parul soon realised that big conflicts don’t go away, they escalate.
Addressing the Problem
After several weeks of ignoring them, Parul chose to address her problems with Mike. What should have been a straightforward conversation about roles and responsibilities was more difficult because Parul failed to address the conflict. She realised that she needed to do something, and decided to address it thoroughly and in person.
What are the main takeaways? As well as learning about conflict and time, Parul realised something remarkable: the reasons she avoided conflict were exactly the same reasons that should have concerned her with it.
- Credibility. As a product manager, Parul is a generalist. While specialists “have the pieces of the puzzle”, general product managers “have the board the pieces go on”. Parul reminded herself of her credibility as a manager of the product when she addressed her colleague.
- The Brand. Parul was concerned about her engineer’s opinions during the conflict, and felt preoccupied by the thought of being “nice” for the sake of herself and her brand. However, she enabled her colleague to steamroll her repeatedly. Not managing that can also tarnish the brand, so she knew she had to act.
- Stress. According to Parul, you give up your power when you give up your voice. Avoiding stress by avoiding conflict can cause greater stress further down the line, so deal with the conflict as early and appropriately as you can.
Overall, conflict management can be challenging and uncomfortable but it is also necessary and appropriate. When conflicts are resolved, teams make greater progress.