The peace process


Stakeholder vs. stakeholder. Team member vs. team member. Conflict happens—and it's up to project managers to ease tensions.


If your biggest workplace conflict consists of telling the guy down the hall to shut his door when he's using his speakerphone, consider yourself lucky.

Slashed budgets, scope creep, personality clashes and office politics can all fuel confrontation. Maybe one stakeholder doesn't want to wait around another week for the latest round of bells and whistles that another stakeholder simply cannot live without. Perhaps a team member is silently stewing over some perceived slight in the morning meeting. Even a simple desk rearrangement can escalate into a major showdown over disputed territory.

And more often than not, it's the project managers who must broker the peace deal.

The best way to turn down the heat on simmering disagreements is to address them before they flare up—extinguishing potential tensions when they're little more than signal fires on the horizon.


It comes down to the physics of project management: A project can't go in two directions at once. Two stakeholders with significantly different visions can, and will, cripple a project—and it happens all the time.

“It's a common dynamic on many projects,” says Ngozi Watts, business developer at WMS, a video game designer and manufacturer in Chicago, Illinois, USA.

The ramifications of two project stakeholders at odds with each other cascade down, says Mary Osswald, senior manager of asset operations and reporting at Kamehameha Schools, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA.

Clearly determining each stakeholder's vision for the project's final destination is step one in curtailing friction.

“Sometimes we think we know what those interests are,” Mr. Watts says. “But the onus is on the project manager to peel back that onion and really understand at a very intimate and detailed level what the interests of the various stakeholders are. Then go through the exercise of figuring out where those interests may align.”

You'll never completely comprehend a person's opinions and objectives unless you dig.

“A project manager needs to facilitate feedback from stakeholders, even if it is not easy to get,” says Marcello Patrese, PMP, partner at PMT Group, a project, program and portfolio management consultancy and training company in Trento, Italy.

Request comments on all correspondence, he suggests.

And be vocal: “If you give feedback, you get feedback,” Mr. Patrese says. “Even if it's not requested or necessary, it's still a lesson for the stakeholder.”


Sometimes conflict rears its ugly head within the project team itself.

The discord can grow out of a lack of understanding—an inability or refusal of the warring factions to recognize each other as working on the same team for a common goal. Left to fester, enmity between colleagues can quickly escalate and halt a project's progress.

It's an age-old problem that even the finest minds in business have yet to solve. Short of some new epiphany, project managers just have to go in and do whatever it takes to facilitate a resolution.

“You can't let your project fail on a couple of people not getting along,” Ms. Osswald says.

On many teams, it comes down to a battle between the old and new guard, she says. People are, by nature, averse to change and they don't necessarily appreciate a fresh perspective. New additions are often met with a frosty skepticism. “There's an immediately distinct view: ‘You don't know how to do our job. You don't understand what we do,’” Ms. Osswald says. “In this kind of cultural clash, you need to foster communication that focuses on the project's vision and objectives. You need to bring everyone to a shared understanding of the expectations of the team and each individual's role in the success of the project and the organization.”


It takes a massive geological force to create a diamond. Likewise, sometimes the conflict among converging project elements can be used as a force for good:


“Sometimes a conflict situation means a high level of stress and, in some projects, could be very useful when you are in a hurry and need a strong and close team,” says Marcello Patrese, PMP, PMT Group, Trento, Italy.


“Conflict can be good because you get the devil's advocate position,” says Mary Osswald, Kamehameha Schools, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA. “Conflict usually comes because someone doesn't want change or they don't agree with how you're making change. It certainly inspires better conversation and more thought about what's being done and why it's being done. It forces the project to evolve.”


“If you have a project with no conflict, you might have just as much of a leadership problem as if you were experiencing massive conflict,” Ms. Osswald says. “It's very unlikely everybody always agrees with how the project activities are progressing. If you have zero conflict, my thought is you've got a bunch of ‘yes men’ who are keeping their mouths shut and simply doing what they think the leaders want. Maybe you don't have an open enough environment. That's possibly more dangerous. You risk implementing something that's not going to work for anyone.”


“Conflict from different interests and the expression of those interests sometimes create the opportunity for creative solutions,” says Ngozi Watts, WMS, Chicago, Illinois, USA. “However, the later conflict occurs, the less likely it is to create those opportunities. The project manager has to identify conflict early on to really leverage potentially compelling interests into a positive.”

The sub-context of this exercise is to build trust.

“It is almost always worth slowing a project down by a few days to take the time to assemble the project teams and revisit the project goals and objectives,” she says.

Project managers must also find ways to contend with passive-aggressive behavior. Some team members keep to themselves or don't speak up when they should. Others run around complaining about how the project's going without recommending any solutions to fix matters.

“That can spiral out of control really quickly,” Ms. Osswald says. “You go to a meeting where nobody will speak up or express an opinion, so you leave the meeting thinking that everybody's in agreement with what the few vocal people have to say. Then a week or two later, you get a memo saying everything you're doing is wrong, and nobody supports it, and the project is completely derailed.”


There's often a clear way for two parties to agree, but it's not obvious to them. A project manager is in a particularly good position to be able to identify a solution to two parties' potential areas of conflict.

—Ngozi Watts, WMS, Chicago, Illinois, USA

To avoid such ugliness, project managers must foster consistent communication.

“The one rule that's really important to establish is that silence is agreement, so if you don't say anything during a meeting, we're going to assume that you agree,” Ms. Osswald adds. “The meeting is your opportunity to say ‘I agree’ or ‘I disagree.’”


When project managers see a potential conflict looming, they need to convince their team of the best path to take—not just impose change, says Fábio Laranjeira Bernardes, project management office leader at CTEEP (Companhia de Transmissão de Energia Elétrica Paulista), Sao Paulo, Brazil.

When Mr. Laranjeira Bernardes recently launched a new standard for managing project budgets, he knew it might set off an uprising among the company's project managers. He had to make the case, explaining both the pros and cons.

“A new budget control based on deviations of executions would bring more operational work to the project managers, but it would also give more analysis power to them,” he says.

First, he secured buy-in from the chief project officer and coordinators, while also warning them of the possible resistance. Mr. Laranjeira Bernardes then held a meeting explaining the change to the project managers. “They were less resistant to that new control, being convinced to use it rather than being obliged,” he says. “People who are convinced become part of the solution instead of being only part of the problem.”

By taking the time to address team member or stakeholder concerns, project leaders can prevent—or at least mitigate—angry knee-jerk reactions.

“A lot of times, project managers are able to get ahead of the conflict and guide those dynamics better than other parties,” Mr. Watts says. “There's often a clear way for two parties to agree, but it's not obvious to them. A project manager is in a particularly good position to be able to identify a solution to two parties' potential areas of conflict.”

Just add peacemaker to the project manager job description. PM




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