Projects are full of conflict moments. Whether it’s someone on the team saying they’ve been given an unrealistic deadline or your sponsor refusing to increase the budget and yet still wanting the same work completed, you are never short of examples of conflict on a project!
Conflict comes in all shapes and sizes. It can be a minor issue that is causing a team member to gripe, or a full-scale drama between two managers – both wanting the project to deliver different things. Part of your role as a project manager is to resolve conflicts on the team, or at least help people find a way through them. Sometimes, getting to resolution isn’t possible, but you can agree to disagree, or find other compromises.
So how do you start approaching conflict situations at work before they escalate into major issues? The most important thing is to deal with it early. The sooner you spot a potential conflict brewing and step in to deal with it, the better. Arguments and conflict situations tend to only get worse, so while it might feel awkward to dive in straight away, you have a greater chance of resolving it earlier on. If you don’t take steps at that point, you’ll end up with a much larger problem to deal with.
There are a number of conflict management techniques that you can read about online or through books focusing on conflict management. Below, I’m going to cover three practical ways that you can tackle conflict in your team: diffuse, agree and apologize.
Diffuse the situation
First, try to diffuse the situation. That means help everyone get a little bit calmer. For example, let’s say you’ve arrived at a meeting late and two attendees have already started arguing. Your role as the project manager is to help them calm down to the point of being able to have a civil conversation.
Here are some suggestions for doing that:
- Ask them to lower their voices
- Make a joke (if you think the situation and their personalities can handle that)
- Suggest the meeting takes a short break
- Ask that they stop the discussion and pick it up after the meeting
- Ask that they stop the discussion, and if necessary, stop the meeting and deal with the argument at that point. Reconvene the meeting later if required
- Ask one of them to leave the room – this is a tactic to manage carefully because the one asked to leave may feel singled out negatively. The one who remains may feel they have “won”
- Ask them both to leave (if you don’t think they will carry on the argument outside the meeting room door and continue to disrupt you).
However you leave it, you should follow up with the parties involved afterwards. Find time to discuss the problem calmly, in a neutral location. I find it works best if you meet each person individually and then bring them together after you have heard both sides of the story. Use what you learn through those discussions to try to work out a suitable resolution for the issue. Meeting off-site, such as a in a coffee shop, can also help, not least because you are surrounded by members of the public and people sometimes behave better in public!
Agree with them
If someone is trying to start an argument with you, or complain to you, then you can agree with them if it’s prudent to do so.
For example, if a customer is unhappy that part of their software project is running behind schedule, they would want to discuss this with you. That discussion may raise argumentative points or start to slide into a conflict situation.
A way to diffuse the situation is to agree, if you think they have a point. Rather than try to argue back, accept what they’ve said. If they complain the project is late, say, “Yes, I agree that we are running behind schedule,” or “I agree with you; it’s unacceptable that this wasn’t brought to your attention earlier.”
It’s hard to argue with someone who is agreeing with you, so it can take some of the volume and conflict out of the immediate discussion. However, you still have to deal with the concerns they raise and take some action. It’s not OK to agree that they are 100% right and then ignore the points they’ve made. Doing nothing makes you look like a poor project manager. Ask, “How would you like to proceed from here?” or, “What can I do to make this right for you?” are good ways of opening up the dialogue to constructive comments.
Apologize to them
In many situations, all the individual wants is someone to say sorry. Apologizing is a powerful strategy for diffusing situations and shutting down arguments.
However, it needs to be done in a sincere way, or it won’t have any affect – and could even make the situation worse. If you don’t feel genuinely sorry or feel that you have anything to apologize about, avoid this tactic.
As the project manager, you can apologize on behalf of the team, and keep other individuals out of the discussion. It’s often easier to take the blame yourself and it’s certainly more professional to approach it like that.
Conflict happens daily – sometimes the issues are big, sometimes small. Having a few techniques that work for you can make the difference between going home under the weight of an argument of having a good day.
Try out these techniques and tweak them to work for you. The best conflict management strategies are the ones that have the most positive impact in the situation, so pick and choose to find approaches that serve you well.
This article was written by Elizabeth Harrin.
Elizabeth Harrin is the creator of A Girl’s Guide to Project Management, which she started in 2006. She has won a number of awards for her internationally popular blog: "A Girl's Guide To Project Management." She also authors two additional blogs, regularly featuring interviews she conducts with industry experts: "Talking Work," and "The Money Files," on Gantthead.