PRODUCTHEAD: 3 ways to handle team conflicts

PRODUCTHEAD: 3 ways to handle team conflicts

PRODUCTHEAD is a regular newsletter of product management goodness,
curated by Jock Busuttil.

sit down. product up #


When delivering difficult news at work, you are not there to seek sympathy

Tie business impact to deprioritised work to highlight the problem to your CEO without sounding whiny

An organisation’s emotionalculture governs which emotions people express and suppress at work

Many organisation equate “fixing” to basically “patching holes in the slowly sinking boat”

every PRODUCTHEAD edition is online for you to refer back to


Where do workplace conflicts come from?

Let’s put to one side the ones that arise because of fundamental differences of opinion or ideology, or because some people are irredeemably unpleasant to work with. Instead, let’s consider the conflicts that arise between well-intentioned people trying their best to collaborate and do the right thing.

I was chatting with a friend and startup co-founder with a background in product management. He was telling me about three ways he tries to pre-empt and defuse conflicts at his company.

The co-founder has come to realise that his response to most conflicts is naturally a ‘flight’ response. So despite this urge, instead he now endeavours to remain present. He tries to displace his usual response with curiosity: he observes how interesting it is for the person is saying that, and asks himself why they might be doing so.

Another approach he told me about is when he has a disagreement with his co-founder. While infrequent, they are inevitable in such a close working relationship. Again, a flight response isn’t helpful — running away from the problem or ignoring it provides no resolution. He ensures he acknowledges the point his co-founder is making and explains his objection to it, then mentally reserves a couple of weeks to work towards a resolution. While this does prolong the conflict, this breathing space helps to reduce the emotional intensity and the pressure to reach a quick conclusion.

He knows he is still uncomfortable in conflicts, but he feels he is at least beginning to tackle them more constructively.

When it comes to his team, my co-founder friend pre-empts possible conflicts by doing his best to ensure that everyone has the same mind’s-eye view (mental model) of the thing they’re discussing. This could be a process, a strand of the current strategy, a set of connected user interactions, the design goals of a new product feature — whatever.

Part of achieving this shared understanding involves using plain language over jargon or loaded terminology. Every discipline and product team tends to develop its own simple shorthand terms for more complex concepts. To those in the know, a shorthand will trigger us to remember the context, nuance and detail associated with the concept. To the uninitiated however, it can be an unknown term, or be taken overly literally, or be associated with a misunderstanding of the intended concept.

Take ‘discovery’ as an example: one innocuous word that represents a whole process and mindset, which itself has evolved over time. To the uninitiated, all that nuance is lost. ‘Agile’ is another example for which the original association has been displaced almost entirely by something altogether different and unhelpful.

The other part is again about giving people time, in this case for his team to explain their respective mental models to each other and work through the misunderstandings and gaps. By doing this, he’s effectively giving them permission to admit — without fear of recrimination — that they don’t fully grasp a concept. Once everyone’s mental models are aligned, the truly productive work can commence.

With constant pressure to be (seen to be) productive, we are increasingly reluctant to give ourselves and our teams the time to work through things. Maybe we would save ourselves more time in the long run if we simply slowed down a little and worked on articulating and listening to each other’s mental models.

Speak to you soon,


what to think about this week

How to handle difficult conversations at work

Difficult conversations — whether you’re telling a client the project is delayed or presiding over an unenthusiastic performance review — are an inevitable part of management. How should you prepare for this kind of discussion? How do you find the right words in the moment? And, how can you manage the exchange so that it goes as smoothly as possible?

Acknowledge your counterpart’s perspective

[Rebecca Knight / Harvard Business Review]

Difficult product discussions with CEOs

I’m sometimes pulled into difficult discussions with CEOs, where I’m trying to describe systematic product-side failures that directly conflict with how the CEO sees the world. Even after dozens of similar discussions, I have only moderate success. But it seems worth framing this leadership-level challenge from both sides.

We lack shared context

[Richard Mironov / Mironov Consulting]

Manage your emotional culture

Most companies don’t realize how central emotions are to building the right culture. They tend to focus on cognitive culture: the shared intellectual values, norms, artifacts, and assumptions that set the overall tone for how employees think and behave at work. Though that’s incredibly important, the authors’ research shows that it’s only part of the story. The other critical part is emotional culture, which governs which feelings people have and express at work.

Every company has an emotional culture — even if it’s one of suppression

[Sigal Barsade & Olivia A. O’Neill / Harvard Business Review]

Slow down on your own terms

If you don’t slow down to speed up, something will force you to slow down. And it will not be on your terms.

Don’t wait until teams break to fix them

[John Cutler / The Beautiful Mess]

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PRODUCTHEAD is a newsletter for product people of all varieties, and is lovingly crafted from chocolate egg overload.

Read more from Jock

The Practitioner's Guide to Product Management book cover

The Practitioner's Guide To Product Management

by Jock Busuttil

“This is a great book for Product Managers or those considering a career in Product Management.”

— Lyndsay Denton

Jock Busuttil is a freelance head of product, product management coach and author. He has spent over two decades working with technology companies to improve their product management practices, from startups to multinationals. In 2012 Jock founded Product People Limited, which provides product management consultancy, coaching and training. Its clients include BBC, University of Cambridge, Ometria, Prolific and the UK’s Ministry of Justice and Government Digital Service (GDS). Jock holds a master’s degree in Classics from the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the popular book The Practitioner’s Guide To Product Management, which was published in January 2015 by Grand Central Publishing in the US and Piatkus in the UK. He writes the blog I Manage Products and weekly product management newsletter PRODUCTHEAD. You can find him on Mastodon, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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