How the project manager proceeds with conflict resolution can have a huge effect on the project and the team members involved and possibly on the overall outcome of the project. And let’s not forget the customer satisfaction component – especially if the customer is observing or involved in the conflict.
I’ve written about this one before but bears discussing again. Why? Because conflict on the project is inevitable. It’s as inevitable as project risk, project budget issues, death, and taxes. If the project manager has to deal with conflict, then it makes sense to do so as logically, graciously, and constructively as possible. After all, remember that it’s real people you’re dealing with even if you sometimes have trouble keeping them focused on the end goal and not on issues with each other or the assignments you’ve tasked them with.
The project manager diffuses the charged emotion within himself
This is basically the classic ‘count to ten’ process we try to teach our kids and ourselves. Before reacting, take a deep breath and count to ten. You’re less likely to kill someone that way and less like to do something that could permanently taint your career. Remember the old “if you can’t say something good, don’t say anything at all?” Well, that’s not really what I’m talking about here. It’s more like “don’t say anything out loud that you wouldn’t say out loud after counting to ten first.”
The project manager diffuses the charged emotions in other people
This is kind of like separating fighters and telling them to go back to their corner. Calm the parties down that are having a conflict and basically have them count to ten. Probably figuratively speaking. Tell them to go to lunch, come back, and we’ll figure out how to settle the disagreement. Lunch always helps. And sometimes food – or lack thereof – is part of the problem. You’ve seen the recent Snickers commercial with Betty White, right?
The project manager identifies the facts of the situation to determine the cause of the conflict
He avoids comments that can be viewed as taking sides or accusing. The last thing the project manager needs to be doing is taking obvious sides in disagreements among project team members or with the customer. Remaining impartial and appearing to be the mediator or even facilitator, if necessary, is key. I’ve said that the project manager needs to be a good negotiator. Look for ways to offer give and take opportunities. Look for ways to make this turn out to be in everyone’s favor. It’s not easy, but if you look hard enough, you’ll likely find it.
The project manager applies active listening
He listens for the facts to acquire an objective assessment of the situation. Active listening helps to avoid being “pulled into” the conflict. Again, remaining impartial and objective is extremely important. Stay focused on the project goals and re-direct your team members to focus on them as well. Work to find a way to point the conflict in the same direction the project is heading.
The project manager acknowledges any anger that may be present while focusing on the merits of the conflict
If anger is justified, he acknowledges it. Sometimes conflict is a good thing. Especially if it brings to light something that needed to be resolved or if it wakes up sleeping team members. Getting energized from a heated discussion that focuses on project issues can get the team and the customer thinking creatively on project related issues.
The project manager keeps everyone focused on the cause of the conflict
He avoids the tendency to blame someone or to rationalize it away. Staying focused on what caused the conflict can be the best course toward actually resolving it. Straying from that can lead to the ‘blame game’ which we all know is not a product road to take.
The project manager keeps the big picture in focus
He asks himself what the best way is to resolve the conflict so as to achieve the project goal. Always be thinking in terms of the overall project goal. When you do that and allow that thought process to guide your actions, then you’re more likely to resolve project conflicts in ways that are not detrimental to the project and its forward momentum – assuming it has one.
The project manager sets a plan for resolving the conflict. He also remains objective
Planning is critical in all project management actions. And that applies to conflict resolution as well. Jumping in without proper planning could land you on one side or the other in the conflict or leave you less than objective in your actions. That is not a place you want to be as the project manager.
The project manager seeks participation in the resolution
Unless an impasse occurs, he lets the people decide on a mutually agreeable solution. That builds bridges and commitment to the solution. An all-controlling project manager is not the type of project manager most team members want overseeing their work. Seek participation from the conflicting parties as well as other team members on each specific conflict. Make it a team effort. Turn it into a project issue that needs to be worked and resolved. Look for action items and assignments that can be made and tracked from the conflict. It will help build ownership for all involved.
The project manager encourages a win-win solution, not a win-lose or lose-lose
With a win-win solution, emotions will subside and there will be little or no room for bitterness. This may sound like cheerleader action, but it goes back to planning, focusing on the project goals, and seeing how you can turn this conflict into something that re-directs the issue, the project, and those involved back toward the overall goals of the project. Make it a win-win situation with forward project progress being made.