Need to Know: Conflict Management
Soumya Maitra, PMP, explains how active listening and finding common ground can resolve project disagreements.
Disagreements on project teams are nothing new, but the cost of conflict is adding up for organizations. In the United Kingdom, workplace conflicts cost companies £28.5 billion each year, according to a 2021 Acas report. And around the world, managers are spending an average of more than four hours a week dealing with conflict—a figure that has doubled since 2008, according to an August 2022 study by The Myers-Briggs Company. Even worse, nearly 1 in 4 people surveyed say their manager handles conflict poorly or very poorly—often the result of poor communication, and frequently leading to lower job satisfaction.
For project professionals, resolving conflict means becoming a people-centric leader, says Soumya Maitra, PMP, manager—client integration, Fidelity Clearing Canada, Toronto.
“There’s no point going into conflict management without knowing what all parties want and need,” he says. “Is there opportunity to create value, rather than dividing the value between you and me? That’s a better perspective for solving the problem.”
Maitra, who has mediated conflicts over priorities, risks and timing, shares four things you need to know to ensure discord won’t disrupt project progress:
1. Be proactive.
Don’t wait until a disagreement is entrenched to respond. At the first sign of conflict—whether it’s an unresponsive stakeholder, an unsatisfied client or a disgruntled team member—seek out a meeting with that person before the next key decision needs to be made.
2. Be an active listener.
Project professionals must resist the urge to listen only so that they can generate a hasty response—and a quick solution. But to get to the root of the conflict, you need to listen with intent and empathy. Having a deep understanding can help you realize when a team member might have valid concerns that could impact the entire team or when a project sponsor’s desire to recalibrate could add strategic value.
3. Defuse defensiveness.
Fear and apprehension can also create unnecessary conflict. During a recent project to complete an audit required by regulators, there was a review of the broker-dealer’s operations, sponsored by the chief compliance officer, which made the operations team hesitant to report issues, fearing blame. For the next audit, I suggested that the COO serve as the project sponsor instead. The COO reframed the project as improving operations rather than scrutinizing mistakes—and that made the operations team more willing to cooperate.
4. Find common ground.
Problem-solving means balancing competing interests. On one project I managed, we sought to launch a cryptocurrency business in Canada, but our risk department began to get nervous about its implications. After many rounds of discussion, risk oversight and the business project reached a common ground. The head of risk oversight completed full due diligence, even though it meant the project would take longer. In return, the executive, who was influential with Canadian regulators, became the spokesperson for the project. By reaching a compromise, we helped make sure the cryptocurrency launched in November 2021.