People and their behavior are the most significant unpredictable factors in project work.
As a project manager, you operate in the intersection of defined frameworks, resources, and goals, as well as the ability to motivate and create interaction between the people who are going to carry out the project.
The concept of “conflict” is associated with something negative, and for many people, seems to be something you want to avoid. Conflicts and resistance are a dynamic resource that – appropriately managed – create development and bring new angles into the project. This requires conflict understanding, leadership, and courage to develop relationships by diving into conflicts and handling the resistance.
Projects are “conflict magnets,” and in that sense, it is important to understand and accept that conflicts are a living condition. It is how you handle the conflicts that determines if they become constructive and educational or destructive and unstimulating.
“Conflicts are a condition of live. They are neither good nor bad. The way we handle them determines if they are constructive or destructive.
What is a conflict?
A conflict can be defined as: “A discrepancy that gives rise to tensions in and between people”. As discprepancies refer to a case such as a project or project content (the object of the conflict), tensions refer to your own inner condition and the relationships between the involved parties (how the conflict can affect the collaboration or the relationship between the project’s stakeholders).
The experience of when and whether there is a conflict is thus individual. A concrete challenge or potential conflict situation can be perceived fully differently from person to person, and thus also affects the individual and their behavior in different ways. A conflict should always be taken seriously, even when it is only one out of several parties that experiences the conflict.
Threat or opportunity?
The behavior that the project manager puts in his or her approach to conflicts has a direct significance for the way they develop. When the project manager avoids resistance and misunderstandings in the project or among the project’s stakeholders, the situation falls to the interpretation of the individual. This can cause innocent misunderstandings to become a threat to the cooperation because they can develop into conflicts.
By taking active responsibility when resistance and misunderstandings arise, the project manager can control and turn a potential conflict into common asset. Taking active responsibility also involves being aware of and preventing situations that can lead to an unnecessary misunderstanding or conflict.
The following situations can lead to conflicts that pose risks to the project:
- A lack of trust among the parties
- Alliances and conflict intensification
- Hidden agendas
- Internal power struggles
- Conflict-avoidant behavior
- Indistinct or a lack of communication
- Ambiguity about settings, roles, targets and resources
- Ambiguity about the expected effort
As a project manager, you can prevent and reduce destructive conflicts and instead channel the energy into a constructive disagreement field with room for development. This is done through leadership and natural authority, by setting clear boundaries.
Specifically, it’s about creating a healthy conflict environment where there is clarity in expectations and behavior, and the involved parties know how to act when resistance and the unavoidable challenges and conflicts arise.
The project manager’s behavior and responsibility
Some project managers are only focused on the project’s progress. Even though this is a good quality, this focus can – when it starts – escalate conflict. Imagine a situation where a supplier cannot deliver timely and where the schedule therefore is affected. Here, as a project manager, you can go three different ways in your answer to this conflict:
HIT – answer aggressively:
“Attack, threaten, use sarcasm”
GO AWAY– avoid the conflict:
“Run away, veer off, distract, ignore, displace, use irony, apologize”
STAND – meet the conflict openly:
“Acknowledge disagreement, investigate, show courage, seek dialogue, dare to ask, handle”
All of the three approaches can have their value – depending on the situation, but are not necessarily equally appropriate. The irritation about the fact that the schedule has to be deferred and the project targets have to be changed can, naturally enough, make a project manager “strike back.” This often escalates conflict, however, because the remaining parties do not feel that they are being listened to or seen or understood by the project manager, whereby both the relationship and further negotiations about a possible solution gets complicated. This can obviously be directly harmful to the project.
By instead meeting the conflict openly, making room for the disagreement, and finding out what went wrong and why, the project manager opens up for negotiation. It keeps the relationship intact and creates space and trust to find a common way to a sustainable solution. (Moreover, take a look at The Relation Triangle from the article “Create Win-win Decisions in Your Projects” that you can find here.
Create a healthy conflict environment
A classic project manager’s dilemma is that there is no direct managerial right. From those persons, who are a part of the projects. It challenges the project manager to create a cooperative environment that motivates the involved parties to do active and constructive work.
A good conflict environment is characterized by trust and allowing room for disagreement with respect for different opinions and positions. This signifies a common understanding frame and acceptance of conflicts and how they are handled. The larger degree of trust, the more safety it offers to the individual to express his or her opinions and contribute alternative suggestions. See the graphic.
This matrix can be utilized to get an overview on where a group is potentially located in relation to the conflict environment. The single field is not a diagnosis, but can be seen as a risk or an opportunity that should be analyzed. For example, there may not be hidden conflicts if the environment in the group is marked by mistrust and immediate disagreement, but there is a breeding ground for them to occur.
Disagreement leads to innovation
Disagreement can create positive energy when the boundaries are safe. As mentioned, the degree of the conflict experienced is individual. Some have a hard time with disagreement, others thrive or motivated by it. In other words, we have our individual “provocation limit” when we experience a conflict as destructive or constructive. In a group context, it is the project manager’s task to create awareness about the group’s common provocation limit (the actual lowest common denominator). With this awareness, the project manager can develop the trust and safety that moves the common aggravation limit into a constructive field with legitimate room for any disagreement that can lead to learning and push the project forward.
A group on the constructive side of the provocation limit experiences that conflicts:
- help to highlight problems and needs for solutions
- focus on and contribute to necessary solutions
- strengthen motivation and unity
- stimulate creativity
- have learning potential
- are necessary for innovation
For a group on the destructive side of the provocation limit, conflict implies:
- insecurity and vigilance of each other
- a lack of motivation and the willingness to cooperate
- surpression of information, knowledge and resources
- delays and increasing costs and/or
- employee exodus in the case of long-lasting, unsolved conflicts
Impact on the bottom line
When the upper management in an organization helps to create the framework for healthy/developing conflicts, and project managers are professionally and personally able to handle conflict, development in an organization becomes possible. This creates the foundation for a culture of innovation. Well-known innovations, like the iPad, don’t come out of thin air or as the result of a “problem-solving” meeting. They occur in an environment, where there is room to disagree and where tons of good, bad and crazy ideas are continually happening.
“For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate.”
Having a culture of innovation culture doesn’t mean that all traditional projects and work within the organization should be put on standby. It means that there should be room for disagreement during project development, between projects, and upper management genuinely appreciates when temployees present ideas – including the bad and nutty ones.
This article is written in cooperation with Charlotte Bæk Risbjerg and was originally published in Tidsskriftet nr. 02.2016 fra Dansk Projektledelse.
Most project manager trainings and certifications emphasize the importance of stakeholder and conflict handling. The available practical material that includes training on how a project manager becomes good at mastering this is, on the other hand, limited. Charlotte Risbjerg and Kristian Sørensen are currently working on the development of the book “Projektlederen som konfliktknuser” – find more information and follow their progress on www.konfliktknuser.dk