Conflict Resolution for Project Managers
By Michael L Young
Who Says Project Managers Don’t Fight!
Because it involves people, conflict in project management is inevitable.
No matter how good your project schedule, how sound your budget, projects can still be undone through poor interaction between individuals.
Projects involve people of different backgrounds, delegations, skill levels, qualifications, experience – and not to mention egos – working together.
Conflict can arise out of differences in values, attitudes, needs, expectations, perceptions, resources, or just personalities.
Therapist David Kantor once said: “In calm situations, with low emotional stakes, it’s easy to deal with people. They will listen to rational explanations, and offer rational responses of their own. But in high-stakes situations…confrontation – overt or subtle – puts everyone on the line”.
Proper conflict resolution skills can assist project managers to effectively dissolve conflicts that threaten organizational productivity and harness the energy for the purposes of good.
Avoiding conflict from the start
In contemporary project management, conflict resolution is part of a project manager’s core responsibilities. But conflict resolution is more than just refereeing disputes. Often conflict in a project stems largely from flaws in the project plan, processes or organization, or even people’s understanding.
The Project Manager can avoid conflicts in projects from the start through the following techniques:
- Always inform the team of the project’s direction
- Explain project objectives and the rationale
- Clearly define project constraints in the project plan
- Communicate decisions and changes plainly and in a timely fashion
- Clearly state expectations of individuals and the team
- Assign work without ambiguity and overlapping responsibilities
- Make work assignment interesting and challenging
If the objective is to construct a team that works, with the right skilled people to do the job, there must not be any ambiguity about the objective and job goals. Each team member must fully understand what is required.
A PM should be a good communicator
The key to achieving these aims is good communication. It is said that 50 to 80 percent of a project manager’s time is spent communicating. This could be meetings, phone calls, e-mails, reporting, negotiating with people, and writing documents.
Even if the project is well planned and expectations crystal clear, it is highly likely that in any of these situations personality conflict will arise. As a leader the project manager will likely need to get involved and negotiate peace between team members in conflict.
Types of personality conflict
There are many types of personality conflict. Most often they are about small elements of personality that irritate others and don’t have much to do with people’s abilities – such as a particular brand of humor, a work philosophy or a need to ask a lot of questions.
Normally, we can tune out these things and just get on with the job. But there are occasions when the irritation between two people becomes friction, and the friction becomes conflict – with negative consequence.
Consequences of conflict can include: lack of co-operation, intimidation, waste of energy, lost opportunity for synergy, reduced productivity or low morale.
Sometimes personality conflict can become openly acrimonious. Sarcasm and cutting remarks that accompany personal discord can bother other team members and this irritation can be cumulative. If the conflict is affecting team morale, the PM should step in immediately.
Approaches to Resolving Conflict
Conflict often starts from people wanting to win a point or control of a matter at another person’s expense. This can seriously damage relationships and the project’s ability to function in the future or in different contexts. Likewise, losing can leave the person feeling powerless or angry which can also damage the future of that relationship, or their self esteem.
The trick is to resolve the conflict in a way that benefits the organization and if possible the parties in the conflict. A good PM will discuss the impact of the situation with the team members and outline the most appropriate approach for the desired outcome. Often the use of a mediator is warranted to dampen emotional responses and keep the focus on outcomes.
There are a number of different ‘tried and tested’ methods of resolving conflict that will apply in different given situations.
- Withdrawal is physical and emotional retreat from the conflict. Individuals should withdraw when: an issue is trivial or another outcome is more important; when ‘winning the point’ is more trouble than its worth; or when someone else can better handle the issue. Withdrawing has its problems. A person who withdraws from a conflict no longer has a say in what happens which – in the long term – can breed resentment.
Suppression can be described as the ‘peace at any cost’ approach. It involves emphasizing the points of agreement and deemphasizing the points of difference. It is best used when co-operation is desired on an important issue or the aim is to be seen as flexible or reasonable. Suppression can be positive if it gives the parties time to think about how to respond to the matter.
However, suppressing a conflict means communication is cut off and important issues aren’t discussed. Issues that will still need to be resolved in the end.
Forcing is directing the resolution in one way or another. Again it should be a short term solution when time is of the essence. It is best used when the issue relates to rules and discipline. PMs should only force an issue when they know they are right and can back up their decision.
Compromise can be seen as a reasonable approach when moving forward is the most important outcome and you have tight time constraints. Compromise involves each party giving in a little and gaining some ground in the process. It may mean that neither party is really satisfied with the outcome – each feeling they’ve lost something but the team will be able to move closer achieving the project goals.
Collaboration is generally believed to be the most satisfactory long term approach to conflict resolution. Collaboration is desirable when each person’s position is too important to compromise and when each has valuable knowledge that needs to be contributed. Collaboration is important in organizations with a quality approach where people need to learn from each other. It should also be used when damaged relationships need to be repaired and total commitment is required.
The advantages of collaboration are that through working together and accepting each other’s contributions, team members can discover better solutions and internal relationships become stronger.
Of course a little bit of conflict is not all bad. In fact the balance of conflict and collaboration can challenge people to bring about innovation and devise more efficient and effective in ways of working together.
For project managers, the key to managing conflicts is to competently support the right attitudes that will build strong teams.
Michael Young is an award-winning project management consultant, trainer and assessor and Managing Director of Transformed Pty Ltd. Transformed works with individuals to develop their project management skills and with organizations to enhance their program delivery and strategic implementation capabilities. Michael can be contacted at http://www.transformed.com.au.