Engineering Managers Must Embrace Conflict

Conflict seems like a dirty word. After all, we don’t want to have fights at work, right? For managers, reducing conflict seems to be the best choice. But is it?

Our society thrives on conflict. We love it. Look at football, boxing and movies. No big arc for the movie? No rivalry for your favorite team? Suddenly everything gets boring.

We accept and champion conflict in our personal lives, but when it comes to work, something changes. More often than not, we try to eliminate it at all costs. To hold your team together, everyone must be in unison. The only way to successfully work with other parts of the company is if everyone agrees 100% of the time.

But this is wrong.

Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity. You’ll avoid the tough decisions, and you’ll avoid confronting the people who need to be confronted.

~ Colin Powel

A manager must embrace conflict in order to succeed. To lead a team effectively to create a great product requires identifying weaknesses and taking corrective actions. This creates conflict — and it’s necessary.

Sometimes, managers think artificially creating conflict is the best way to inspire their team. From their point of view, it can make sense. Historically, every time there is some sort of shake-up, tempers flare, people argue, but the end result is positive. Somehow the product is better and the team appears to be stronger.

But creating conflict, just for its sake, is a misunderstanding of what’s actually happening. While we need to embrace it, conflict isn’t the goal, it’s a byproduct. Criticism, feedback, and challenging the status quo are the sources of conflict. Conflict can be a signal that your team and product are evolving. Without the proper sources, though, it isn’t the sign of anything effective.

A good engineering manager provides constructive criticism to their team, allows their directions and assumptions to be challenged, and actively encourages feedback on all levels. When this happens, they understand that conflict will inevitably arise. This is good, and should be embraced and not stifled. It’s a sign that something positive is happening.

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