Career Advice

From Conflict to Collaboration

Lisa M. Balbes

Science has always had its share of conflict. In fact, science advances through conflict, usually as informed debates among proponents of competing hypotheses. Friendly competition is often encouraged as scientists test the limits of observation and explanation.

However, while friendly scientific differences and lively discussions have their place, personal conflicts are never welcome. Such interactions, which move away from facts and into stylistic differences, personality traits, and so on, can quickly escalate, causing significant stress for all involved. These problems are magnified when a power difference exists between the two parties—for example, between an adviser and a graduate student or postdoc.

Therefore, the art of conflict resolution, or being able to find mutually agreeable solutions for parties currently in disagreement, is essential for a productive career. In fact, learning how to resolve such problems and avoid escalation can not only significantly reduce stress and enhance your professional life, but it can also prove useful in your personal life. The more you develop a range of conflict resolution strategies and the wisdom to know which one to use when, the more successful you will be.

Prevent Problems

The best way to resolve conflicts is to prevent them.

Work to build open and trusting relationships with your colleagues so you can identify and resolve issues early. Learning about others provides you with insight into their motivations, intentions, and work style, and it provides a baseline against which to judge their future actions. With a shared history, you are more likely to assume good intentions on the other person’s part, although it could possibly be coupled with incomplete information or lack of forethought. Building a relationship takes time and is a like building credit—you can only take out what you put in.

It is especially important to develop an open and trusting relationship with your adviser. Work to learn what that person’s individual managerial style is. When your adviser tells you to do something, does it mean to do exactly that, or are you expected to find the best way to achieve the shared goal? Knowing how much latitude you are allowed, along with how much initiative is expected, will make it easier to gauge how to react when disagreements arise. In addition, if you have proven to be reliable and valuable, you will be more likely to receive the benefit of the doubt yourself.

Consider Power Dynamics

Conflicts can be especially difficult when the parties involved have unequal power. The person who can make decisions and cause things to happen or not to happen has the upper hand in negotiations and may be tempted to take advantage of it.

An imbalance of power is more likely if the conflict centers on something that is a “fixed pie.” This occurs when there is only a certain amount of a resource, and if one person gets more, the other person necessarily gets less. If you can find a way to expand the pie or turn the focus to finding noncompetitive ways to accomplish the goal where both parties can prosper, you can reduce the power differential and create an environment that is more conducive to compromise.

Define and Understand

The first step in conflict resolution is to make sure you understand the issues involved. Is this a scientific disagreement about the best way to achieve a shared goal? Do you disagree about the goal itself? Is it a personal conflict about loyalty, betrayal, or respect? Is it a disagreement about relative priorities and the way resources should be allocated?

Use active listening skills and make sure you truly understand the other person’s position. This means concentrating on what is and isn't being said and identifying any assumptions. Are there things this individual knows that you do not or the other way around?

Pay attention to both words and body language. Ask clarifying questions but do not immediately rebut the other person’s position. You don’t have to agree, but you do have to understand.

Depending on the complexity of the situation, you may need to meet with multiple people individually and listen to their feedback. Once you understand their points of view, you may want to get all the stakeholders together to work out a solution.

How strongly do you feel about your position? Will the outcome matter five years from now? Is there a bigger picture? For instance, if you push this issue, will you lose out on something more important later on? Is the relationship strong enough to survive this disagreement, or is preserving the relationship more important than winning?

Are there any ethical issues involved? Is there something illegal, unethical, or immoral that needs to stop? Especially in this case, you will want to determine how severe the problem is, whether it needs to be reported higher up in the institution, and if so, to whom. Collect any relevant evidence, including emails and written notes, and save them as documentation for the appropriate authority.

Consider all your options. If you can’t come to an agreement with the other party, what will be the best option left to you? You also need to think about the worst-case scenario that could occur if negotiations fall through. Are you prepared for that?

Communicate

Once you understand both sides of the situation, it’s best to act sooner rather than later. Don’t wait and let resentment fester while you hope things will solve themselves.

Practice until you can express your opinion and desired outcome clearly and firmly but not aggressively. Don’t focus on solutions initially; instead, center your attention on your desired outcome (getting this piece of data or graduating by a certain date, for example).

Ask for a meeting with the other party where you can sit down calmly and discuss the issue. Sit side by side, if possible, not across a table. Make sure the right people are present. Do you have the actual decision makers, or are you going to have to repeat everything later?

Present your position and concerns. Work together to brainstorm many possible solutions and discuss the pros and cons of each. There are probably multiple solutions that will lead to your desired outcome. You can present your preferred solution as one possibility but not the only option. Remember that the goal is agreement, not “winning.”

Although scientists like data, facts can be perceived as aggressive when presented during a disagreement. Introducing new information in the form of a question can soften it and make the other party more willing to receive it. Do not ascribe motives or value judgements to others. For instance, instead of saying, “You listed me as the third author on this paper. Obviously, you don’t respect me,” you could say, “I am listed as third author, behind Pat. Was that because you think Pat did more of the analysis than I did?”

Strategize

When you get to the actual negotiations, there are five main strategies to choose from. As you will see, some of them are likely to bring you a much more desirable outcome than others.

  1.  Compete. 
    In this case, the more powerful person simply wins. This is only a good choice when the two parties will have little or no contact in the future. Remember that the scientific world can be a small one though, particularly within any particular field of specialization.
  2. Compromise or negotiate. 
    Meeting in the middle is usually seen as fair. However, while no one loses, no one wins. Usually both sides end up either equally unhappy or at least not completely satisfied.
  3. Avoid or deny. 
    You could always pretend there is no problem. This may work for a short time, but the issue is likely to get worse.
  4. Accommodate. 
    This is when one side gives in to preserve harmony and save the relationship. Although this works if the accommodating party is not highly invested in the outcome, it can lead to lingering resentment and eventual rebellion.
  5. Collaborate. 
    Work together to find a solution where each side wins. This takes time, and it needs to start early in the process, before the parties become entrenched in their own positions.

If the issue is very emotional, you may want to bring in an external, unbiased mediator. They can help defuse the discussions and allow both sides to use the conflict as an opportunity for collaboration and growth, making positive changes to prevent similar issues in the future.

Say No

At some point, you may have to just say no to something. However, there are ways to say it positively. Instead of saying “Yes, but….” (which sounds like no), try saying “Yes, and…”, which is less confrontational.

Although you don’t have to give a reason for your “no,” providing one can help others understand your position. When possible, follow it by offering an alternative, such as “No, I can’t stay at work past 7:00 p.m. tonight, but I can come in and start the NMR first thing tomorrow morning.”

Pay attention to cultural issues. People in some cultures rarely say no directly, but their actions will express it.

Keep Sight of the Big Picture

It would be nice if everyone could just get along, but we know that doesn’t happen in the real world. By accepting the fact that there will be conflicts and learning and practicing strategies to resolve them, you can make your professional life that much more harmonious.