It’s a common perception that any kind of conflict is bad and should be avoided at all costs. We might imagine tempers rising in a team of perhaps clashing personalities, especially if it’s a temporary team, or one with remote or global team members. Working in a pressured environment with severe deadlines can create issues and uncertainty around deliverables. But differences of opinion and in ways of working don’t have to be negative.
According to the APM Body of Knowledge, conflict management is the process of identifying and addressing differences that, if left unresolved, could affect objectives, in a rational, balanced and effective way. Facilitating healthy conflict without suppression can support group development and learning experiences.
Conflict often arises because team members do not understand something, they don’t know how to operate as a team, or there may be behavioural, cultural differences or value differences. A project manager needs conflict resolution skills but must also know when to ask for help.
Five common mistakes made by project managers when handling conflict:
• Not having a fair conflict management system in place
• Not applying or respecting organisational/team values
• Ignoring issues and hoping they will go away
• Taking issues too personally
• Being too remote – emotionally and physically – ie. not taking the time to get to know your team
How can a project manager deal with conflict constructively?
Engage: It can be hard for a project manager to predict or understand the behaviour or attitude of members of the team if he/she doesn’t know them very well. This is why it is important to quickly establish a level of trust and respect in your team through your leadership skills.
Plan: Conflict can also be reduced at the outset of a project through good project planning and communication. The clear definition of scope, time, costs and risks creates the basis for understanding of what is expected and a common starting point for exploring any future conflict.
Negotiation: Project managers who need to deal with multiple situations and personalities would do well to practice their negotiation techniques which would enable them to successfully facilitate agreements between the various parties. Starting out in Project Management explains this process is more structured and follows a defined process.
Behaviour: When managing conflict there are five ways to behave, according to the Thomas-Kilmann model, which is based on two axes of ‘concern for own point of view’ versus ‘concern for others point of view’. How many of us strive to collaborate fully or agree to compromise?
See the diagram below:
Ways of managing conflict, from Starting out in Project Management, p42 by Ruth Murray-Webster and Peter Simon.