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Avoiding Conflict Before it Arises

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In a presentation hosted by the SWWE Branch at Exeter on 20 June 2017, Nick Fewings began with a brief background to his career in banking, his migration into project management and his development into a Chartered Psychologist, ultimately becoming Change Director in Barclays.  Taking his experience one stage further, he formed his own company with a mission to develop individuals and teams.

He highlighted that the majority of project meetings report progress against ‘tangibles’ e.g. programme milestones, expenditure, earned value etc. They rarely look at the performance of individuals. He suggested that meetings should spend 20% of the time on strategy and 80% on people. Most meetings tend to reverse this ratio and Nick believes that this is a contributor to project failures, as well as:

  • Lack of strong leadership
  • Poor understanding of individual strengths and weaknesses
  • Failure to focus on team dynamics

In simple terms, the common factor was that ‘people deliver projects’.

Most conflict management training focuses on resolving situations that have already caused disruption; this is re-enforced by the standard definitions of conflict management. For example:
Conflict management is the process of limiting the negative aspects of conflict while increasing the positive aspects of conflict. The aim of conflict management is to enhance learning and group outcomes, including effectiveness or performance in organizational setting (Ra him, 2002, p. 208).

Nick considered that if formal conflict management needed to be invoked, it was already late in the day, with issues already present. The best time to deal with such issues was at the earliest possible stage, when it could be dealt with internally.

In order to avoid conflict you first need to understand the characteristics, skills and pressures on a team. Nick demonstrated this by asking the attendees to rank themselves against a set of colour groups, the colours described the characteristic strengths and those that people exhibit when under pressure. This made it possible to see how each colour groups complemented other groups (or not!). When establishing a team it is important to ensure that group members were appointed to tasks that suit them. This can be achieved through various analysis tools, but Nick advised to only use ones approved by the British Psychological Society to ensure accuracy. The analysis information then can inform the optimum mix of people in a project, which is important to get right to enhance people’s strengths and reduce pressures that can lead to conflict.

The role of the team leader was also discussed. They should be sympathetic to their members and be able to adapt their own style to ensure that they achieve effective communications with all colour groups.

To ensure that teams were aligned in achieving the best results, it was suggested that they considered:

  • What is the team doing well?
  • What could be done better?

Nick was thanked for his interesting and thought-provoking presentation and for addressing the wide range of questions put to him.

Julian Harris


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