Most people don’t like conflict – no surprise there. When asked how they deal with conflict, most people say they try to avoid it, even though they admit that this approach is not very successful.
During a recent conversation Jen Dunbeck, a friend who has extensive experience in project management, I was pleased to hear that she views conflict in a more positive context. First, she accepts the inevitability of conflict in project contexts. She noted, “the project manager often has to deal with a wide group of stakeholders who are not all aligned.” While the different perspectives held by the stakeholders set the stage for conflicts, they are also completely natural since people have various functional experiences, personality traits, and styles of operating. While the diversity can create conflict, it also brings wider points of view that can be used to solve problems.
Once it is acknowledged that a project team is going to experience conflicts, why not try to make the conflicts work for rather than against it? In order to do this, it is essential to promote constructive communications exchanges among all stakeholders. Although this sounds easy in principle, it can be quite challenging.
When people experience differences with others that threaten their own interests, they can become defensive and less willing or able to hear others’ points of view. Yet, as Jen mentions, it is exactly the sharing of differing viewpoints that can help spur creativity and strengthen the product being developed.
To enhance listening, people need to be able to manage their own emotions. When experiencing negative emotions, individuals are less open to hearing others’ perspectives. An important first step is learning to cool down and regain emotional balance.
At this point it becomes easier to explore why others are seeing the situation the way they do. Understanding others’ perspectives is one of the most powerful conflict management tools. It can help lead to creative breakthroughs because it allows one idea to build on another.
Developing team norms can help address conflicts. Since conflicts are inevitable, it is important for team members to come up with an agreement for “how we want to treat one another when conflicts occur.” Such agreements make conflict less anxiety provoking and provide clear ground rules that legitimize good conduct when it does happen.
When I asked Jen about the benefits of positive conflict she mentioned several. As previously noted, she found that products were improved because people were able to discuss and debate issues more effectively which inevitably resulted in more creative ideas. She also said that projects were more likely to come in on schedule. When conflicts turn destructive, people interact less and things take longer because collaboration is missing. If you are able to work through things constructively, people feel more comfortable working together to help one another. They also give each other the benefit of the doubt if some issue arises. They will take time to find out what is going on rather than jumping to a negative conclusion about a colleague.
Jen also found that teams with good conflict management skills had much better project retrospectives. In these teams, members were more comfortable discussing issues and airing different viewpoints. Their skills that help in current projects set the stage for more successful ones in the future.
By developing their own conflict management skills and those of their team members, project managers can develop an important advantage to ensure more successful outcomes.
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