Project Management Institute

Give peace a chance

  Conflict on projects is inevitable. Here’s how to spot it—and defuse it.
THE UGLY TRUTH is that no project is going to work through its life cycle without conflict. The reasons for discord are rich and varied, from two team members having a row over who has the best idea to autocratic sponsors making unreasonable demands. And the constraints of time and budget only escalate the potential for strife. by

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“Conflict is ever-present,” says Richard Brenner, principal at Cambridge, Mass., USA-based Chaco Canyon Consulting, which specializes in teamwork, communication and conflict resolution. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Good ideas become better through creative conflict. We don’t want to eliminate conflict—it’s just destructive conflict that’s problematic.”

Project managers need to develop a fine sense of how to safely foster creative conflict—and stop the destructive stuff early on.

“I would say [conflict resolution] is one of the most important skills,” says Rodolfo Civile, a project management consultant based in São José dos Campos, Brazil. “The technical knowledge about the project you are managing is of course a must, but the ability to solve conflicts and relationship issues are part of everyday life for a project manager.”

Left unresolved, conflicts that fester and distract the team from working together can, and so often do, have a tangible impact on project performance. —LINDSAY MCKENNA, LINDSAY MCKENNA LTD., READING, ENGLAND

Project managers neglect this skill at their own risk.

“If you let conflict continue, it could impact the morale and efficiency of the team and will ultimately impact the project overall,” says Wei Lee, PMP, vice president and manager of identity management projects at Citigroup Inc., Warren, N.J., USA. “Delays, increased project costs–there can be a lot of consequences.”

The following tactics should help project managers reach détente among the warring parties.

From the start, project managers should identify potential areas of conflict and formulate plans to minimize them. At the outset of a project, Mr. Lee creates a conflict escalation plan that lays out how a clash will roll up—if necessary—through a project organization chart, from team members to their managers to stakeholders.

Ground rules for discussing conflict should be established early and reinforced by the project manager and team behavior, says David Cook, PMP, head of projects and infrastructure management at Jamaica Public Services Co., Kingston, Jamaica.

Most of the time, conflict comes from bad internal communication, Mr. Civile says. So every month, he organizes a half-day meeting with the entire team, everyone from the secretaries to the people in charge of safety. “We discuss all the issues area by area, so everyone understands the difficulties their colleagues are facing,” he says. The meeting helps clarify matters “and works like group therapy.”

Project managers may also want to create mechanisms for time-outs when those conversations become heated, Mr. Brenner says.

Once into the project, managers need to keep an eye out for early signs of strife inside and outside the team—and then find ways to quash it before it gets out of control. “Left unresolved, conflicts that fester and distract the team from working together can, and so often do, have a tangible impact on project performance,” says Lindsay McKenna, managing director of Lindsay McKenna Ltd., a conflict resolution consultancy in Reading, England.

The best time to deal with a disagreement is “when it’s large enough to detect and small enough to handle,” says Wallace Wilkins, Ph.D., a mediator and trainer at Conflict Resolution Resource Center, Seattle, Wash., USA. Here are some of the early signs:

Complaints about a team member

Negative body language, such as folded arms and rolling eyes

Sarcastic responses masked as jokes

Angry e-mails or ones that can be interpreted the wrong way.

Project managers shouldn’t be afraid to follow up in person—not to accuse, but to gather more information. “My first approach is a one-on-one conversation to find out what the issues are,” Mr. Lee says. “Most of the time it’s a misunderstanding, and could be resolved in 20 minutes.”

Just letting a person know how you interpreted their comment and asking if that’s what they meant can defuse a potentially explosive situation. “You might find that they didn’t mean it that way at all, and the conflict goes away immediately,” Dr. Wilkins says.


If you let conflict continue, it could impact the morale and efficiency of the team and will ultimately impact the project overall.
—Wei Lee

hash it out

SOONER OR LATER, most project managers will find themselves playing the role of peacemaker between squabbling team members. But short a degree in diplomatic relations, many project managers don’t know where to start. Trainer and mediator Wallace Wilkins, Ph.D., of Conflict Resolution Resource Center, recommends the following steps when mediating a conflict.

1. Meet ahead of time and set the ground rules for the meeting. No runovers, with one person overpowering the other; and no runaways, where one party gets up and stomps out of the room. Secure commitment from the opposing factions to stay even if the meeting gets awkward.

2. Choose a private and neutral setting. That could be a conference room on another floor, or even some-place less traditional. “I had one project manager who realized that the most private and neutral place was the loading dock during certain hours of the day,” Dr. Wilkins says.

3. Schedule appropriately. Meetings should occur when people have plenty of time—not an hour before closing.

4. Stay focused. That means leaving the mobile phones and pagers behind.

5. Look for conciliatory gestures and direct attention to them. “If somebody says ‘I’m sorry for what I’ve done in the past,’ make sure that the other person hears that,” Dr. Wilkins says.

6. Surf the waves of emotion. And be sure to acknowledge the difficulty of doing so.

If the conflict persists, one option is to pull the warring parties aside and try to negotiate a deal. Mr. Lee recommends getting the combatants to talk about the disagreement in terms of how it affects the company’s strategic goals. “The most important facet of conflict resolution is always to put the business goal first,” he says.

Focusing on the larger goal will help the parties involved move past the issues of who is at fault and zero in on what’s important. “It’s a business triangle— disputant one, disputant two and the business problem,” Dr. Wilkins says. “They don’t have to agree with each other, but they can agree to move the project forward.”

Sometimes a conflict is not so easily resolved. The project manager is then left with a choice: Work around the problem or escalate the issues to a higher level. If the project can still move forward effectively despite the conflict, the former is a real option. Mr. Lee used this strategy last year on a project that included two team members with a history of discord. As the two struggled to work together, Mr. Lee says he had to “look at what was the best for us to continue to meet project deliverables.” He partitioned the work that needed to be done in a way that allowed for as little interaction between the two as possible. “It was very challenging, but it settled the conflict such that we could proceed,” he says.

Despite the best efforts of those involved, conflicts can move beyond the original combatants. People take sides, and the quarrel ends up embroiling the whole team.

culture wars

JUST THINK of it as project management meets the United Nations. When a team is scattered across different countries and cultures, not everyone may be working from the same basic assumptions. That can lead to misunderstandings, which can lead to conflict.

In Jamaican culture, for example, arriving at a meeting as much as 45 minutes late is usually accepted. But David Cook, PMP, Jamaican Public Services Co., tells of a U.K. construction site project manager who was “insulted by the consistent lateness of his local site manager,” he says. Recognizing the cultural differences, the two resolved the conflict by agreeing on the common project goals. Going forward, they agreed to start their meetings at five minutes after the hour. “Nevertheless, both parties had to adjust their internal time clock,” he says.

In cross-cultural settings, it’s up to the project manager to act as an ambassador. He or she should take the time to research the cultural backgrounds of team members and have an upfront discussion about those differences at the outset of the project.

“I’ve been working for many years in Brazil, France, China, Argentina and India, and my first approach is to read a lot about the local culture and talk with people who had the same experience,” says project management consultant Rodolfo Civile.

The same basic rules apply, though, says Wallace Wilkins, Ph.D., Conflict Resolution Resource Center. Project managers still want to approach the conflict with an eye toward figuring out how team members can work together to complete the project.

This is when taking the problem up the organizational chart should be considered. Mr. Lee found himself enacting his project escalation plan on that same project last year. When he recommended one team member to take charge of the final project production night execution checklist, one of his colleagues strongly disagreed with the choice. “I had to escalate to two senior managers to get agreement before I could move forward,” he says.

Escalation makes sense—if used correctly. “Many project managers would rather struggle on and miss dates, but if you think of what the delays cost, there’s a business impetus to fix this thing,” Mr. Brenner says.

But escalation up the org chart is appropriate only if the source of the destructive conflict lies there. “If the root lies within the team, escalation will never help,” he says.

Sometimes, conflicts arise from trying to balance the often-lofty expectations of project stakeholders with the team’s ability to deliver. “Having sponsors think the way to get the best of a team is to demand the impossible is a recipe for destructive conflict,” Mr. Brenner says. This so-called “crack-the-whip” theory of human behavior is “inhumane and unethical,” he adds.

Dealing with the executive branch often means breaking out the diplomacy skills.

“Often, conflicts with the sponsor have to be resolved through negotiations,” Mr. Cook says. Project managers should have a clearly defined plan and be aware of how the changes will affect the issues—time, cost and quality—that matter to the power players, he says.

The key lies in showing deference while still presenting options that are clearly grounded within the overall project goals. For example, the project manager could agree to implement the stakeholder’s decree, but set up metrics to gauge its effectiveness. “If the data are positive, the project manager can continue, but if not, he or she can try it in a different way,” Mr. Cook says. “What the project manager is doing is acknowledging the power and showing respect. It will go a long way to help the stakeholders change their minds if this isn’t the right direction.”

Project managers sometimes do end up on the receiving end of edicts from high above that they can’t change. Teams are frequently required to follow a process that’s simply not realistic, for example. Here, the best option is honesty. “What I would do is acknowledge that it’s a nutty process,” Mr. Brenner says. “Failure to acknowledge this undercuts your position as a leader—you need to let team members know that you realize the problem, and while it might get fixed long-term, for now we have to live with it.”

Finally, project managers need to acknowledge when getting rid of a team member is the best choice. While not always a viable option, replacing a recalcitrant team member can get a project back on track. Such a move is clearly a last choice, and Mr. Cook says he tries to avoid such a drastic call—unless the good of the project is at stake. “When a troublesome team member begins to undermine the team efforts and promotes self-interest, we have to think about such actions,” he says.

These situations should be rare. If project managers have done their risk analysis and kept an eye out for early conflict, they should be able to broker a peace deal before all-out war breaks out. PM


Carol Hildebrand is a freelance writer based in Wellesley, Mass., USA. She is a former senior editor at CIO, and her work has appeared in Baseline, Darwin, Computerworld, Network World and other publications.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.




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