A Project Manager needs many skills. And one of the hardest to come to terms with is managing conflict. You won’t use it every day (I hope). But you will need it from time to time. Whether you are called upon to handle a small spat or defuse a mighty row, conflict management needs a place in your project management toolkit.
No matter how well you manage your projects, nor how skilled you are at dealing with people, conflict will arise. It is inevitable when people care about things that are new, important, and complex. And it is sometimes a good thing to air different perspectives in a robust way.
This article is Part 1 of our two-part guide to managing conflict. We’ll publish the second part a week later. It links nicely to our recent guest article, Interpersonal Skills for Project Managers.
In this guide, we’ll cover all the conflict management bases for you:
There’s no sense in hanging around though, so let’s dive straight in!
Projects create change. And change creates resistance.
Wherever you find resistance, there is the possibility that it will escalate into conflict.
Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.’
Conflict tends to arise because we have different values and different choices about what is important. We therefore get into a conflict to either defend our values and beliefs, or to try to persuade others that we are right.
If you do find yourself in conflict, look for ways to manage it in private. Because in public, you will both feel a need to ‘perform’ to your audience and will have less chance of listening, hearing, or re-evaluating your position. All you will do is staunchly defend your pitch.Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret - Ambrose Bierce Click To Tweet
When conflict comes, it builds up through a sequence of increasingly powerful negative states:
If you can spot the signs of escalation early, you can most easily resolve the conflict, before it becomes acute.
Body language provides some of the most obvious indicators:
When we start to feel irritation, we either lean away to ease our discomfort, or lean in, to signal confrontation.
The first gestures betray our doubts or disbelief. Face touching can signal doubt and blocking our eyes says “I don’t want to see this” – a powerful sign of disagreement. Later gestures relieve the unpleasant feelings of anxiety and insecurity, like rubbing hands along our thighs or touching our neck by fiddling with a tie or collar (for men) or a necklace or scarf (for women).
Facial expressions also change, showing the early signs of anger or disgust. Our forehead can start to furrow, indicating the stress we feel from the situation.
Conflict arises from an irritation with something followed by a resistance to it. That resistance can become anger, as our emotions take over and, at some point, we can lose control. Verbal or even physical abuse ensues.
De-escalation starts from respect between the two parties – which means one of you will have to break the pattern and make the choice to engage positively. Show respect to the other person and invite them to take a step towards resolution. By building rapport, the parties can start to feel empathy for one another and collaboration can begin. Now you can start to explore possible solutions that may ultimately lead to a resolution.
Conflict has a way of escalating out of control. Your objective in conflict management is to resolve it at the lowest level possible. This will make resolution easier and safer.
The first skill in conflict management is observation, because …
The most important need of the human soul is to be understood’
Use your empathic listening skills to hear what the other person says and to pick up the unspoken messages that betray their growing unease.The most important need of the human soul is to be understood - William James Click To Tweet
You can also spot some clear signs that the emotional centres in the other person’s brain are taking over their unconscious movements, to try and pacify their anxieties. The first skills you’ll need to develop are:
These skills will slow down the whole conflict process, and give you time to think. Then you can start to deploy the second set of skills:
There are five basic strategies you can use for managing conflict.
Sometimes, the issue is not worth fighting over. In the heat of the moment it seems important, but it’s not. As soon as you realise this, step away from the conflict. But do so with generosity and grace. Let the other person feel that you have made them a gift.
You can use this strategy as a permanent solution to pointless issues. Or, you can use it as a temporary strategy when either:
With some stakeholders, winning is not always as important as maintaining the relationship. In these cases, make the concessions you need to make, to preserve harmony. Allow the stakeholder to feel they have won and show them that there are no hard feelings on your part.
But, on the other hand, sometimes winning really matters. This could be because you are confident you are right and the matter is important to you. Now it’s time to argue your case as strongly as you can. But only do so if the you can be satisfied with winning, even if the cost is that your relationship suffers.
What if the relationship matters, and so does winning? The easiest strategy is to trade concessions so you both feel you have won something. Of course, you have both lost something too, but it will feel fair. This is compromise. It works, but it can leave both of you feeling you have given up too much.
So, if you are prepared to invest more effort, there is another way…
This is not for every situation, because it needs a lot of trust and takes a lot of effort. But rather than trade concessions, why not look for what you can do for each other? Is there a way you can both add something positive to the situation? Use this strategy when both the matter at hand and the relationship are of great importance to you.
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Conflict may not be an inevitable aspect of Project Management. But when you have a diverse team under pressure, it is a likely consequence.
If your team is mature and functions well, you may not need to intervene to manage conflict among them. They may resolve it for themselves. But, if you do, it is important to tackle it early, before it gets too hot.
Here are five mechanisms you can use to help in managing conflict among team members.
Set up an informal conversation with the protagonists. Use this to offer feedback and advice. If you can engage with the dissenters early on, this is usually the only intervention you will need.
Sometimes the dispute extends beyond the people in direct conflict. Then, you may decide to deal with the issue publicly. But, if you do, keep the discussion around the issue, rather than the people. Make sure you respect any team ground rules that you agreed at the start of your project. It is important to keep the discussion positive and purposeful.
For bigger conflicts, you may need to support the protagonists in resolving their dispute, by taking a mediating role. Meet each one in advance to understand their perspectives. Then meet each one again to explore areas for agreement and reconciliation. Finally, bring the protagonists together to talk through a joint way forward, once you have uncovered enough common ground.
But what if you can’t find that common ground? Or what if they refuse to negotiate with each other?
The step beyond mediation is arbitration. Now, you’re no longer helping them to find their own resolution. Instead, you will arbitrate on the matter and lay down a solution and a way forward. This will only work if you have the right combination of authority and respect from both parties.
I have never had to resort to confronting team members, but it may be a choice you want to take. If you are going to do it, there are real risks.
So, prepare well. Make sure you understand all of the facts and have thought through what you will say and how you will say it.
You may also choose to involve another team member. This may be to create a neutral observer or to give yourself an ally.
First, focus the protagonists on the project and its goal. And then use their sense of responsibility and duty to put their bad behavior in context. As always, be sure you can avoid the confrontation becoming personal. It’s the behaviors; not the people.
You ultimate recourse is to reprimand one or both parties. You may even need to make the decision to remove one or both from the project. These are extreme measures, so be sure that you can do this in a way that is manifestly fair, proportionate and aligned to your organisation’s policies and procedures. Consider getting support from a sponsor, or another senior colleague.
There is more to come in next week’s article, where we’ll continue our guide to managing conflict with some more practical steps you can take:
In the meantime, if you have any thoughts, questions, or experiences, please do share them in the comments below. We always respond to them.
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Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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Conflict Management: Ways to Get it Right | Part 2
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