Conflict can occur in any project team. It can healthy, but if allowed to go unresolved for long periods, conflict can have profound negative impacts on project teams.
Predicting the degree of conflict encountered during the life of a project can be difficult. I have been involved in projects where, despite significant constraints and external pressures there has been minimal conflict within the team, and yet there have been teams that have gone through significant bouts of conflict throughout the life of their projects.
So what can you do to manage conflict?
While I am a firm advocate of finding the source of the conflict, there have been instances where I was never able to establish what the real issues were. In these instances I managed the situation and moved the team forward to deliver the required outcomes.
While conflict varies between individuals, project teams and organisations, the core process I use is as follows:
Acknowledge the Conflict
Firstly acknowledge that there is conflict. Once you acknowledge that there is problem, you’re one step closer to resolving it. Just burying your head in the sand and pretending that all is fine is going to get you nowhere
Identify your course of action
Spend some time on a plan of attack to deal with the issue. Consider some of the following when formulating your plan:
- there a clear issue causing the conflict?
- Is the conflict based on a misunderstanding, or something more complex?
- Is the source people, process or task, or a combination of all of these?
- Is it a power and/or ego issue?
- Are there people external to the team involved in the manifestation of the conflict?
A lengthy document outlining your plan in fine detail isn’t necessary. You simply need to develop a small checklist covering the major points of your plan in whatever format suits your style.
A high priority in your plan should be to ask team members questions about what the issues are.
Most people, when asked open questions, will answer honestly and without agendas, providing insight into the issues behind the conflict. Unfortunately some people will not disclose what their issues are when first asked. With persistence and employing different techniques, different types of questions, further information can be obtained. Perseverance and consistency are keys to managing the conflict.
You will come across some individuals that will not give up any information, no matter what approach you try. In this circumstance you should examine what else is going on within the team, to assist in establishing your plan of attack.
Putting your plan into action is crucial to mitigating the conflict. If the issue at the core of the conflict is within your sphere of control, then fix it. If it is an issue that can’t be resolved internally, such as an organisational process or vendor related issue, then it is important that the team understand the situation and move on.
Sometimes conflict can’t be resolved satisfactorily. While most people can resolve their issues and move on, there are cases where the conflict can’t be managed in a way that allows the team function effectively. In this situation, you will need to either put up with the unresolved issues, or change the resource mix of the project.
The final tip for conflict resolution is to start the process as quickly as possible – conflict doesn’t get better with age.