Project Management Institute

Conflict is everywhere




In an unusually rapid turn of events, a Colombian military unit crossed into Ecuador on 1 March 2008 to raid a small camp of militants belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The Ecuadorian president declared the act an illegal violation of its territory and ceased diplomatic relations with the Colombian government. In a statement of support, Venezuela and Nicaragua quickly followed suit. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe charged both the Ecuadorian and Venezuelan presidents with supporting and sheltering FARC, which is accused of killing and kidnapping its political opponents. Daily declarations and allegations from all parties involved followed. Finally, six days later at a Rio Group summit, Mr. Uribe offered his apologies to the president of Ecuador, who agreed to resume normal diplomatic relations.

Is this conflict different from others in the world? Maybe not, although the intensity of the speeches reminded me of how we Latin Americans sometimes deal with conflict—letting our emotions get in the way of the negotiation processes.

Only Human

Conflicts are the natural consequence of human interactions among team members and stakeholders. Most disagreements within projects stem from different expectations among stakeholders, differing opinions about decisions or solutions, or varying levels of commitment to the schedule. Although frustrating at times, this discord—if managed well—can help stakeholders better understand these issues and come to an agreement, especially in a multicultural environment.

Here are some ground rules to help keep disputes constructive, regardless of what cultures are involved:

1. Confront the problem right away. Project conflicts usually require an extremely rapid resolution. Think of the one issue that gives you the greatest stress and try to resolve it in one afternoon.

2. Don't take it personally. Make it clear to everyone involved that the conflict is just a difference of opinion. Avoiding emotional attachment will help clarify interests and differentiate them from “hidden agendas.” Focus on activities and expected outcomes, not on individuals. This can be tricky in cultures that tend to be more emotional, including Latin America, for example, where passion and long debates are the rule.

3. Close the loop. For the conflict-resolution meeting, invite only those directly involved with the disagreement. Others on the team can and should be informed, but they don't need to be part of discussions.

4. Let the people talk. First and foremost, listen. A lot of people feel better just talking about their concerns.

5. Come up with a plan. These meetings can be tough, but don't let the situation get out of control. Make a brief introduction, state the problem, ask for everyone's point of view, listen thoroughly to the explanations, set an action plan, get commitments from everybody involved and establish a concise follow-up strategy.


6. Don't delegate. If you pass on the task of finding a solution to a project conflict, it will undermine your position as project manager and generate confusion among team members and stakeholders. Once you're informed, make sure you find a solution. The worst thing you can do in a conflict is to do nothing, especially after someone has turned to you for help.

Think of conflict management and resolution as one of your everyday responsibilities. The better you get at dealing with problems, the more successful you will become in achieving the outcomes of your projects. It's as simple as that. PM


Roberto Toledo, MBA, PMP, managing director of Alpha Consultoria, is a trainer and consultant who works across Latin America. He can be reached at [email protected].

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