Project managers need many skills in their toolbox – but mediation is one that is often overlooked. Nobody wants to spend all their time trying to keep the peace between warring factions, but we do need to ensure that conflicting views have a voice and are listened to.
Rather than thinking about peacekeeping or mediation on a project, we prefer the concept of project managers being proactive peacemakers in every interaction because:
- Projects are challenging and inevitably there will be tension.
- An emphasis on collaboration and psychological safety can lead to pressure not to ask awkward questions.
- Good disagreement is core to making progress, and being intentional in how we approach and manage these situations is important.
A proactive peacemaker creates an environment that encourages non-hostile disagreement in order to deliver the best outcome. So, what can we do to create a safe space for innovation and problem-solving?
1. Get comfortable with the discomfort of conflict
Disagreement stimulates the same areas of our brain as physical threat; our minds are flooded with signals that tell us we are under attack. Understanding what is happening in our brains during conflict means we are better placed to manage the situation.
One of the most useful techniques to employ is to be intentional about slowing down our breathing. An easy technique you can share with your team is to breathe in slowly to the count of three, hold for three, breathe out for three and then hold for another three… and repeat.
2. Make sure your team has the confidence to engage in healthy debate
Team members need to know that if they offer a contentious viewpoint they will not be shot down in flames or have it held against them. Start by developing a target statement to ensure that everyone believes the project is sufficiently important to be worth taking the personal risk of speaking up.
When the importance of the project is clearly articulated and the team feels engaged in this, then it is far easier for team members to express challenging viewpoints.
Next, demonstrate how you want your team to behave. Offer differing viewpoints, welcome and accept challenge from others, show that you are not taking any dissension personally, and be clear that you are happy to be wrong.
3. Value diversity and richness within the team
Create a safe place of mutual respect, appreciation, inclusion and trust where different perspectives are encouraged and valued. Don’t forget that everyone approaches problems in different ways. Some of us (with extroversion tendencies) want to talk through the problem, whereas people who are more introverted need to think first and speak later.
Ignoring quieter colleagues can be a disaster; projects have been known to fail because an essential but inconvenient nugget was ignored or never surfaced.
Throughout your project, keep building relationships and connections. Taking time to understand the strengths, skills, personalities and diversity of thought and experience around the table will pay dividends when you need to mediate a difficult situation.
4. Stay curious and open-minded
Your role as proactive peacemaker is to dispel misunderstandings and make sure the issue and any areas of conflict are clear. Putting the problem out in the open allows us to examine it fully and objectively. Then we can explore solutions by:
- encouraging everyone to discuss as many perspectives as possible;
- allowing time to explore all the options;
- setting a specific intention to try to break possible solutions; and
- encouraging everyone to replace the word ‘but’ with ‘and’ when responding to one another.
Once all the elements of the issue have been surfaced and possible solutions interrogated, it is often easier to agree a resolution. Even if you cannot steer your team to agreement, at least team members will feel their contribution was valued, making them more likely to accept the outcome.
5. Remain open, honest, pragmatic and authentic
There will be times when you need to deliver difficult messages. Do not shy away from uncomfortable truths. Be prepared to acknowledge issues and areas where expectations may not be met and be confident in explaining why, always ensuring that any decisions have been made within the context of good governance and your project’s agreed decision-making process.
Proactive project mediation is not a stand-alone activity; it is built by every interaction you have on your project. If you do have to mediate between two conflicting views, you will only have the authority to do so effectively if you demonstrate that you listen to the viewpoints of others; you are able to balance risks and costs; and the final decision will provide the best outcome for the project.
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