Recovering From Project Conflict

What happens when conflict management techniques still leave you feeling stress and frustration? You need to take care of yourself proactively. If you ignore these self-management methods, you are more likely to cause more conflict. Once you gain mastery of these methods, you can share your experience with your project team.

Note: I am indebted to “Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers: The People Skills You Need to Achieve Outstanding Results” by Anthony Mersino for many of the concepts explored in this article. Anthony’s book is an excellent resource for project managers seeking a better understanding of the people side of project work.

Stress Is A By-Product of Conflict: Manage It

“PMs should be familiar with the need to reduce stress and have at least one method that they employ. There are a multitude of stress reduction methods starting with easy things like exercise and self-care all the way through more radical approaches like getting a new job or leaving an abusive relationship. Previously discussed techniques include prayer and meditation. My coach is a big believer in using breathing techniques. The point is that there are a lot of different ways to reduce stress and I encourage you to experiment until you find one that works for you. On the other hand, if you are one of those people who thrive on stress and intentionally create it in your life, what I write here won’t matter much to you anyway.”

From – “Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers”

Mersino’s explanation is right on. If you see yourself as someone who thrives on stress, I would question that view. Is it the stress of long hours or exertion that you like or achievement? In all likelihood, achievement is more important than working extra hours.

In order to keep achieving and delivering results on your projects, you need to monitor your stress levels thoughtfully (otherwise you may have a workplace meltdown!). As I wrote in Stress Management Techniques For Project Managers, you can use a variety of techniques to reduce stress.

Consider the following stress reduction methods:

  • Go window shopping during lunch (you could call this “retail therapy lite”)
  • Read a book that has nothing to do with your work (I’m currently reading “Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr” by Ron Chernow) for a few minutes during lunch
  • Take the stairs if you have a task on another floor to get the blood flowing

If you have a good relationship with your project team members, consider recommending the above proactive stress management after you use these methods. You may even raise the topic of wellness and stress management for a few minutes at the end of a status meeting to reiterate its importance.

Conflict Escalation: Step Back Before You Start A War

As you move through the day, your energy and willpower are gradually depleted. This means you can probably handle a small conflict with ease at 10am but struggle to respond professionally to a similar conflict at 5pm. Once you sense your ability to manage conflict starting to slip, step away.

“If you find yourself heading toward a breakdown, give yourself a time out. Leave the building, go to lunch early, quit for the day, or just head out to the nearest coffee shop for a snack. If you are at home, you can punch a pillow or hit a bed with a tennis racket. Some people find exercise helpful.”

 – from “Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers”

Building on the point above, observe the people you work with. If you observe someone speaking louder and louder to make their point, step away. Be wary of scoring points at the expense of the relationship with the project team member. To put it bluntly, you don’t need the reputation as someone who constantly starts fights.

Put Your Conflict Feelings Into Writing

Vague feelings from conflict cause a great deal of turmoil and distraction. Putting your feelings into writing can help. As Anthony Mersino shows below, this technique dates back to the nineteenth century:

“A technique that Abraham Lincoln reportedly practiced was to write letters he did not plan to send. The idea is that through expressing your emotions in writing, you are able to release any emotional charge. This worked well for Abe when he used paper and pencil but may not work as well today with our modern office tools. For example, we may type an e-mail that we don’t plan to send and then actually end up sending it inadvertently. Some organizations monitor all e-mails, even unsent ones. Other organizations use keystroke logging software to record everything typed at a keyboard including documents, unsent e-mail, and instant messages.”

The possibility of monitoring is a great argument for keeping a paper notebook. If you are working through anger, you might even consider writing in “Wreck This Journal.” There’s something unique about tearing up pages! I’ve even heard of law students burning their notebooks after they finished the pressure of law school.

Take Vacation Like You Mean It

Vacations? Aren’t we supposed to focus on achievement and the concerns of the office all the time? Rest and relaxation to pursue personal pursuits are tremendously important.

For those who need inspiration to take a vacation, here are six ways you can use a vacation.

  • Improve your home. There’s no need to hire a contractor, you can start small by painting a room or cleaning out a closet. Taking care of a long neglected domestic task yields surprising psychological benefits. Your family may even appreciate the disciplined approach you take to such tasks as a project manager!
  • Cross an item off your bucket list. Vacation time is a great time to cross items off your bucket list. For example, I’m seeking to see all of Shakespeare’s plays performed (and this summer I saw several!)
  • Rediscover a hobby. Years ago, I went through a SCUBA diving course. I’ve been meaning to explore it again. If you have an interest that requires significant time or resources to engage in, a vacation is the perfect time to explore.
  • Visit a new country. I love living in Toronto and I’m aware that it is only one part of the wider world. Visiting a new country exposes me to new ideas and renews my appreciation of Toronto and Canada.
  • Catch up on sleep. Getting lots of rest on vacation is an EXCELLENT idea. Even better, this form of renewal is free and you can do it at home.
  • Catch up on reading. On my last vacation, I read a number of books, including some business titles (e.g. “Talk Like TED” Carmine Gallo and “Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt” by Michael Lewis).

Going on vacation also puts distance between you and project conflicts. Often, distance and perspective gives your mind a chance to come up with new approaches.

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4 thoughts on “Recovering From Project Conflict

  1. I have also heard of managers who schedule walking meetings to achieve the same effect for themselves as well as their teams. You literally walk outside the office as you talk. It is a mini-vacation away from the office room.

  2. Davis, thanks for your perspective. In concept, I like the idea of walking meetings (they remind of “The West Wing”). It could be challenging to take notes while in motion though!