Last week, I covered the ten sources of project management conflict. Now that we realize conflict can appear at any time, what are we supposed to do about it?
As with any other challenge, we approach this situation with a process. At first glance, applying a process to a conflict may seem cold. I take a different view. Responding to a conflict without any kind of framework is less likely to be successful.
Conflict Management From The PMBOK Guide
According to the PMBOK Guide, “conflict is inevitable in a project environment.” After defining the problem, the PMBOK Guide suggests five techniques for project management. Let’s review these techniques and consider when to use them in managing conflicts.
Note: by experience, you may have a strong preference for one of these techniques. Remember that there is a time and place for each approach.
Withdraw/Avoid Conflict Management
Definition: “Retreating from an actual or potential conflict situation; postponing the issue to be better prepared or to be resolved by others.”
If you are a prone to outbursts of anger, withdraw/avoid can be an excellent technique. By withdrawing, you have the opportunity to come up with better ideas to address the conflict. Temporarily avoiding the conflict also means you have the chance to think through the other person’s situation.
While withdrawing and avoiding is valuable in the short term, it can be over used. If you retreat from a conflict situation and fail to follow up, the conflict is likely to become worse over time. Withdrawing and avoiding also works well as a self-management technique.
Smooth/Accommodate Conflict Management
PMBOK Definition: “Emphasizing areas of agreement rather than areas of difference; conceding one’s position to the needs of others to maintain harmony and relationships.”
This approach recognizes the importance of professional relationships to project success. On long term projects, anything over a few weeks, persevering and strengthening the project team becomes very important. After all, project team members are constantly emphasizing differences, making progress on the project becomes very difficult.
Areas of agreement to emphasize will vary depending on the context. You can look at shared commitment to the project and how disagreement impacts others on the team. You may also want to reference areas of agreement that surfaced during other stages of the project.
Successfully using smoothing and accommodating requires understanding of the parties in conflict. For example, are the parties truly upset about a work package being one day late? Or is there a deeper source of conflict? As a project manager, nobody expects you to have the capabilities of a therapist (though that level of empathy is certainly helpful).
Tip: For further background and techniques in applying the Smooth/Accommodate approach, read “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In” by William Ury and Roger Fisher.
Compromise/Reconcile Conflict Management
Definition: “Searching for solutions that bring some degree of satisfaction to all parties in order to temporarily or partially resolve the conflict.”
The compromise technique recognizes that some conflicts cannot be fully solved. For example, you may have an ambitious developer who is interested in learning the Salesforce interface deeply and asks to go on a week-long training session. Based on your analysis of the schedule, that type of training would cause significant problems for the schedule. A compromise solution in that case would be to arrange a different training arrangement such as a briefing with an expert from Salesforce and a $100 budget to buy books about the technology. In this situation, the developer obtains partial satisfaction and the project manager largely maintains the project schedule.
The compromise and reconcile technique does have some drawbacks. To successfully use this method, the project manager needs to understand the needs of the person or stakeholder. The project manager also has to be willing to make changes to their project. For compromise to be successful, each party needs to benefit and sacrifice party of their objectives.
Project managers can also compromise across time. For example, you may respond to a stakeholder’s request for additional functionality by deferring their request to phase two of a multi-phase project. In any case, this type of change is best documented through a change request. Otherwise, it is easy to lose track of the change.
Force/Direct Conflict Management
Definition: “Pushing one’s viewpoint at the expense of others; offering only win-lose solutions, usually enforced through a power position to resolve an emergency.”
From time to time, project managers have to take a stand and apply their power. For example, a project manager in a construction environment may force staff to complete safety training and wear company assigned safety equipment. In that context, safety procedures protect the individual and the team.
As the PMBOK definition above suggests, applying force to resolve conflicts comes at a cost. Specifically, the project manager is likely to harm relationships with the project team by using this method. Abuse or overuse of this technique tends to cause more conflict in the long term.
Use the force/direct conflict management technique only when absolutely required.
Collaborate/Problem Solve Conflict Management
Definition: “Incorporating multiple viewpoints and insights from differing perspectives; requires a cooperative attitude and open dialogue that typically leads to consensus and commitment.”
The collaboration and problem solving approach to conflict is the most productive technique in my view. This technique has two major benefits; the conflict itself is solved and the project team is strengthened as a by-product of working to solve the problem. This technique is most likely to be successful in situations where the project team already has a high level of trust.
Tip: Creativity makes a difference in coming up with new solutions. For further reading on this topic, read my article How To Improve Project Team Creativity on creativity and problem solving.
Among conflict management techniques, collaboration has one major disadvantage. Of all the techniques covered in this article, creative problem solving takes the most time and energy. If interpersonal skills are not your strength, you may find this technique very challenging.
What conflict management techniques do you find most helpful in project management? How have you developed your conflict management skills over time?