Conflict - a serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one, be incompatible or at variance; clash.

We may feel uncomfortable with conflict. Perhaps our ears ring, our face feels warm, and we must concentrate on not over-reacting or perhaps reacting at all. Conflict comes from many sources.  Those times we are under pressure to get something done; every little impediment can cause stress.  

When I was younger, getting my engineering degree, my room-mates would comment on how I had patience for the technical task at hand, but not so much for people. I would retort, if I do not understand the technical situation, it is all on me.  It is understandable and calculable. I can experiment, I can study.  It is easier to exhibit patience when it is on you.  

Let’s face it, material things are easier to understand.  But even here, conflict is important.  I have been part of product development teams that have produced 7 US patents.  We did not just sit around and say, hey, let’s think up some intellectual property. The fact was we were working to solve a customer problem and the limitations imposed due to customer constraints.  The pressure of solving the problem within the constraints were uncomfortable, but without this pressure, and an environment conducive for exploration, the intellectual property created.  This applies to more than just material problems, conflict – obstacle in the way of our objective.

Projects are executed by people, and people, well they do not fit molds, they are not calculatable and they do not always follow a pattern or an externally discernable / observable logic.  This inability to see beyond the observable does not help matters.  Conflict comes from people due to differences:

  • Expectations
  • Priorities / desires
  • Knowledge/training
  • Skill sets
  • Understandings

And people are just going to bump heads over large and small issues.  Competing priorities, and different understandings of an expectation or situation. Each person bases their position on their interpretation or a previous experience. “We have always done it like this around here” comes to mind.

Like the material issues, projects are unique, complicated by the above list of individual perspectives, and from experience, frequently constrained and have conflicting priorities, an environment conducive for conflict.  How we use that conflict, whether we embrace these and create an effective environment for resolution, or whether we suppress dissent, enamored of group think, or the veneer of no conflict. From experience, this is not a satisfying work environment for the team member, and an approach that produces poor results for the organization.

Conflict is Good

Conflict is good! Not every project manager or department manager will say that. In fact, most don’t want conflict. They expect everyone to get along or, as I say, “Play Nice in the Sandbox.” Playing nice in the sandbox is a great goal and mostly unachievable. People will be people. We all have our baggage and look at things in life with different perspectives. We, like most project managers, dislike conflict. Doesn’t matter if it is between us and team members, team members and team members, or us and stakeholders. Conflict is hard…if you make it hard.

Difficulties are meant to rouse, not discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict. -- William Ellery Channing

Those managers and project manager, or even organizations, that prize harmony above all, do not understand the role of conflict.  To be sure conflict can make a toxic environment, but so too does fear of rocking the boat.  In general, extreme approaches, are not a long-term solution to anything. In this case we refer to an environment wherein dissent is discouraged, or an environment wherein there is constant conflict that is inadequately managed.

Conflict has to be addressed head-on.

Be quick to resolve conflicts before they mature to become wars. The energetic crocodile was once a delicate egg! - Israelmore Ayivor

The worst-case scenario is having your boss bring a conflict within your project to YOUR attention. Not that you have to watch team members constantly to identify any conflicts. Conflict usually show up in team meetings or design reviews. Usually, the situation and circumstances will dictate next actions for you to take. Depending on the others in the room, you could try to resolve the conflict in the meeting. Sometimes this action gets others involved and you find out how small or large this conflict might be.

Or just take note of the conflict, in the meeting, and meet with those involved immediately after the meeting.

Taking conflict head-on doesn’t mean with an aggressive attitude or action. It merely means the moment you see or hear about a conflict you take the time to research the situation. Learn who the players are, what is the issue, why is it a conflict, and start working to resolution.  First and foremost: DO NOT TAKE SIDES, even if you clearly see someone is correct. You will win a heart and lose a heart. The object is to see both sides and work to fine a common ground to build on.

Remember, as adults, we don’t need to always get our way, but we do need to feel heard and genuinely considered.―Crismarie Campbell

One team member used to always take the opposite view of a ‘hot’ topic. The first time we worked together he didn’t rattle me, which upset him. He told he tried to take the opposite view in order to get a reaction; to start a ‘conflict conversation’. I told him, conflict didn’t rattle me and sometimes I would invoke it in order to start discussions. Too many early experiences with ‘yes’ team members and stakeholders.

We don't get harmony when everybody sings the same note. Only notes that are different can harmonize. The same is true with people.― Steve Goodier

Conflict is productive

When a conflict is resolved, all parties are satisfied and ready to move on, it is productive. When team members can see others’ viewpoints, it is productive. When results of the resolution deliver positives to the project, it is productive. Conflict conversations along my career path has helped me become a better project manager and a better person. I have learned to ask questions first to understand and to listen carefully to the answers. Conflict has also helped me try to see things from someone else’s point of view. I’ve learned to look at situations from, what is now called a 30,000-foot view. To try to understand what flows into the current conflict and what results might flow out of the resolution.

Now, we are not advocating go out and be like my colleague mentioned earlier and be a conflict generator, just realize that when a conflict does arise it is an opportunity to a discussion, a learning, a better understanding of people around you, and definitely a growth opportunity for everyone involved.

We leave you with one last thought:

The better able team members are to engage, speak, listen, hear, interpret, and respond constructively, the more likely their teams are to leverage conflict rather than be leveled by it. - Runde and Flanaga