Conflict Resolution in Project Management

John D. Rockefeller said, “The ability to deal with people is as purchasable a commodity as sugar or coffee. And I will pay more for that ability than for any other under the sun.” Project management is, in a word, dealing with people.

Conflict on your project should never be feared but must always be managed. It is as natural and as necessary as emissions from an engine because any system that produces work has heat (friction) as a by-product. The more work is produced; the more heat is generated. However, engines that get too hot can freeze up and then nothing is produced until the machine is repaired or replaced. Likewise, unresolved conflict can cause unnecessary stress, lost time, apathy, bitterness (sometimes resulting in sabotage), and unnecessary bureaucracy.

The fundamental aspects of conflict are always the same. Conflict exists because humans make up the machine. Therefore, the single most important thing that you can do to manage conflict successfully is build relationships with the people around you. Strong relationships are the summation of many little things. It’s the simple “thank you” and the moments in which you demonstrate genuine (never fake) interest in the other person that build the relationships you need to resolve future conflicts effectively. When we humanize each other, successful resolution of our conflict becomes worthwhile for all parties involved.

Not unlike the first, the second most important action to take is the listening. It’s important that we not only become active listeners (good eye contact, taking notes if appropriate, etc.), but that we also listen for the person’s point of view. When the person on the other side of the table is talking, he has a frame – a main idea within a particular context. It’s imperative to understand this frame if you hope to find common ground. He also has feelings of which you must be aware. If you think people are rational or logical, you’re naïve – nothing could be further from the truth. People feel and how they feel about their conflicts shapes their ability and desire to find resolution. If you listen close enough, you may even discover your opponent’s values.  Conflicts that stem from a difference in values are the most difficult to overcome because people cannot just let go of their core values. To aptly resolve conflict, you must understand the other person’s point of view (his frame, his feelings, and his values), something that can only be attained through genuine listening.

Third, get a grip on your own hot buttons. Admit that there are some things that just set you off and put you in a frame of mind that prevents you from even caring about conflict resolution. Know what those things are and take steps to avoid them. Find things that remove your stress (e.g., exercise, meditation) and then do them until your head is clear. Gracián, in “The Art of Worldly Wisdom” (1637 A.D), said “Never act out of passion. If you do all is lost. You cannot act for yourself if you are not yourself, and passion always drives out reason.”

There are four conflict resolution styles that every manager should have in his toolbox. We all have a style that comes naturally, but knowing how and when to apply the other styles is a skill worthy of study and practice.

The first is avoidance, where people withdraw to avoid conflict. People avoid conflict when they believe that resolution is hopeless. As a project manager, I like to pick and choose the battles I fight. There’s a time to walk away and a time to stand up and fight. I find avoidance to be the best solution when I don’t care about the outcome and perceive no impending harm to my project or my relationships.

The second is competition, where one person or group attempts to overpower another by forcing his or her own solution on the others. Competition is especially useful when there are different ideas about how something should be done. Individuals or teams can take time to lay out their game plan or build a prototype of their idea. When the different teams compete and are forced to defend their ideas, better solutions emerge.

The third is adaptation, where people feel that the relationships are more important than their own goals. Everyone wants to be liked and accepted by others, so adaptation is best used when harmony is the most important thing. For example, when a significant stakeholder feels strongly about a terrible idea, the wise choice may likely be adaptation in order to preserve the strength of the relationship despite your opinion of his idea.

The fourth is cooperation, where people value both their goals and their relationships. Studies show that people tend to consider this their natural style but see others as naturally having one of the other styles. When there is a strong desire to find an acceptable solution for all parties, cooperation is possible. This is the so-called “win-win” negotiation outcome and it is only achievable by people who invest in relationships.

Human behavior has not changed in thousands of years. Study it daily, be mindful of the conflicts around you, and always strive to manage them gracefully.

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