Conflict Resolution in Project Management — and When to Use It
One thing new managers discover early on is that their role is as much about people as it is about producing. People have lives that can get messy and those disturbances can spill over and affect team dynamics and a project’s success. In addition, team members may be highly skilled to meet a project’s demands but lack the interpersonal skills needed for an efficient and successful team dynamic.
Conflict is not always shouting and thinly veiled insults, although that type of behavior is a red flag for project managers. Conflict should also be viewed as a part of a project, as changes to method, scope, and even personnel within the team, while normal, frequently trigger team conflicts.
Alternatively, when team members are discouraged from disagreeing with their manager, disempowerment is usually the result. This often leads to small sabotages that can undermine a project and affect the project’s and company’s bottom line.
“The cause of conflict in team projects can be related to differences in values, attitudes, needs, expectations, perceptions, resources, and personalities,” notes the North Carolina Training Consortium. Many managers find that fields like engineering and information systems, where team members are pulled from highly different backgrounds and orientations, are particularly vulnerable to conflict.
The cost of conflicts in business is high. A study by CCP Inc, which publishes the Myers-Briggs Assessment and Thomas-Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument, employees spend 2.1 hours each week involved with conflict, annually costing over $350 billion across U.S. companies. The same study also found that 25 percent of employees have witnessed conflict lead to sickness and absence and 9 percent have seen conflict cause a project to fail.
But is conflict always a negative force within a team or company? An open dialog between individual team members and teams and project managers allows for disagreements that may result in fresh solutions and improved processes.
Boost Midwest understands that there are positive and negative ways conflict can play out during the lifecycle of a project. We offer these best practices for how to avoid it when that makes sense, how to resolve conflicts, and how to use them to help drive the success of a team and project.
How to recognize positive conflict. Positive conflict is constructive in nature, but quantifying conflict as positive or negative is like playing chess — a project manager needs to see a few moves ahead to determine if the outcome of the conflict is skewing positive or negative.
Therefore, a skilled project manager tracks whether the conflict results in any of the following:
Produces new ideas.
Solves ongoing problems.
How to recognize negative conflict. It’s often easier, or at least quicker, to identify negative conflicts because the consequences are often quick to surface. These include:
High stress levels.
However, few conflicts are 100 percent positive or negative. An astute project manager will be able to tamp down the negative elements of a conflict while harnessing the positive aspects in order to improve outcomes across all levels. When conflict recognition and resolution is successfully used, those new skills and positive outcomes continue onto the next project.
To resolve conflicts in project management — and across all business operations — Boost Midwest uses these top best practices.
Determine the source of the conflict. The more information you have about the cause of the problem, the more easily you can help to resolve it. When seeking information, ask open-ended questions and make listening a priority.
Ask for solutions. Bringing the conflict out into the open can lessen its power over team dynamics. Requesting solutions not only helps the project manager assess the positive aspects that may lie within the conflict, it holds team members accountable and empowers them to find their own path to change.
Seek consensus in ideas. When identifying ideas for solving conflicts, look for the most acceptable course of action for the team and project —and one that will benefit the company as a whole. These could be resources for developing skills in collaboration and cooperation, general team-building, or conflict resolution techniques individual members can use before a conflict grows big enough to affect the entire team and project.
Decide on the best technique. There are different ways to resolve conflicts, depending on the source of the conflict and how manifests itself in the workplace. Select the technique based on information learned in the preceding steps and the project plan and timeline that best fits the conflict:
Problem-solving. Use open discussions in face-to-face meetings with those causing or involved in the conflict.
Avoidance. Postpone the issue by withdrawing from or suppressing the conflict. This is a temporary solution, and the conflict will likely reappear later in the project timeline or during a new project.
Accommodation. This approach emphasizes the areas of agreement and downplays areas of disagreement. While this doesn’t always lead to a resolution of the conflict, it may provide time needed to determine how the conflict is affecting the project outcome and the best conflict resolution to use, to finish a project that is on a tight timeline or when the conflict is not affecting the project at hand.
Confrontation/Collaboration. This involves the conflicting parties meeting face-to-face and collaborating to reach an agreement that satisfies both parties’ concerns. This style involves open and direct communication that should lead the way to solving the problem.
Compromise. Each party involved in the conflict gives up something of value in this give-and-take style of conflict resolution.
Authoritative command. The project manager uses his or her authority to resolve the conflict, then communicates the plan to the involved parties.
Use behavioral change techniques. There are ways to effectively change negative behavior. Training in these techniques can be provided to team members and/or the project manager. This is a longer-term solution with wide-ranging benefits and may not be implemented quickly enough to address a specific conflict.
Restructuring. In determining the source of the conflict, management may find that it is the team or company organization that’s driving the conflict. Changes in roles, team member transfers and adding positions are some of the ways restructuring can resolve conflicts.
Choosing which method of conflict resolution fits the conflict at hand is not always clear, and project managers should be ready to shift to a different method if results aren’t seen within a reasonable time frame. Boost Midwest has found that if conflicts are continually arising within a team or a company, the company culture may be in need of conflict resolution training across all employees as an alternative to high turnover, a stressful workplace and delayed or failed projects.