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Applied EQ #50: Managing Conflict using Emotional Intelligence

It has been a while since I have last posted and that is because of my focus on writing for The Project Manager’s Guide to Emotional Intelligence.  Just so you don’t think I have given up on the blog, here are my thoughts on Managing Conflict using Emotional Intelligence.  Let me know what you think.

Conflict is Inevitable

Most project managers would agree that conflict on projects is inevitable. Projects are built on a foundation of the conflicting constraints of time, cost, and scope.  Projects are often created to satisfy the needs of one set of stakeholders which may conflict with needs of other stakeholders.  During the execution of projects, conflict frequently surfaces over contention for resources, rewards and recognition, roles and responsibilities, team member diversity, technical decisions, reporting structures, and even individual personalities.

Lack of emotional intelligence in project team members and stakeholders can also cause conflict.  Team members and stakeholders who experience emotional breakdowns or lack emotional self-control are like ticking time bombs.  When they detonate, they will frequently take healthy members of the team with them which could include you as the project manager.  Even team members and stakeholders with high emotional intelligence may create conflict with others when they are under stress and pressure.

Most project management experts agree that project conflict can be healthy.  Properly channeled, conflict can galvanize teams, spark creativity, and cause healthy competition.  Conflict also provides the opportunity for the project manager to show leadership with emotional intelligence competencies such as empathy, self-control, and relationship management.

If not properly channeled, conflict can stifle communication, kill creativity, and squash productivity.  Un-managed conflict will create unnecessary distractions and may encourage otherwise good team members to leave.  Teams that are not able to manage conflict may fail to reach their objectives.

Conflict management is an essential part of the project manager’s job.  The project manager is the one who will make the difference between properly leveraging conflict or having conflict wreak havoc on the team.  Successfully recognizing and addressing conflict is part of the PM’s role.

The first step in the process is to recognize that we have conflict.  In many cases, it won’t be difficult to see conflict.  Consider the case where I had a team member come to me and tell me “I won’t work for him anymore”, referring to a team lead who reported to me.  This team member then proceeded to tell me about all the shortcomings of this team leader, how hurt she felt, and that she didn’t want to report to him anymore.

In another example, there were two sub teams involved in a decision over two possible technical directions.  One team lead was calmly describing the two approaches and the merits and shortcomings of each.  The other team lead simply said, “any idiot can see that this is the only valid approach”.

In each of these examples, it is not hard to see the conflict.  It would not be hard if we saw or heard two individuals arguing or even bickering with each other.  However, the signals may not always be this clear.  We need to be attuned to our environment to pick up on subtle signs that something is wrong.  Subtle signs include lack of communications, missed deadlines, poor quality deliverables, or deliverables behind schedule.  Team members may also use sarcasm or silence with each other.

Traditional Approaches to Conflict Management

Assuming we recognize that we have project conflict, how do we go about managing that conflict?  We can start with the traditional ways managers have addressed conflicts.  Consider the five traditional modes of handling conflict as outlined in 1964 by Blake and Mouton in their book, The Managerial Grid:
• Withdrawal
• Smoothing
• Compromising
• Forcing
• Confrontation

Let’s look at each of these classic modes of conflict resolution from an emotionally intelligent perspective.

We use withdrawal when we retreat or withdraw from an actual or potential disagreement.  In relation to the other approaches, withdrawal is low in terms of emotional intelligence.  In fact, withdrawal was one of the emotional breakdowns described in Chapter Four.  When we use withdrawal to deal with a conflict, we are disengaging from the relationship.  We don’t tell the truth about our feelings or our wants and needs.

Unfortunately, withdrawal does not solve anything.  In fact, with withdrawal we don’t even acknowledge that there is a conflict.  When we use withdrawal, we aren’t really interested in solving the problem.  We don’t provide the other party the opportunity to work with us to resolve the conflict.

Withdrawal can be successful as a short term strategy.  By separating parties in a dispute we allow the air to clear and cooler heads to prevail.  Withdrawal would be very appropriate in situations where you believe that there is a risk of physical danger to anyone.  Withdrawal could also be useful in situations where there is no long term relationship.  If you experience conflict in the last few weeks of a project, you may decide it is not worth working to resolve that particular issue.  Otherwise, withdrawal should be used sparingly.

Smoothing is when we minimize or avoid areas of difference and instead emphasize areas of agreement.  As a technique for resolving project conflict, smoothing is also relatively low in terms of emotional intelligence.  Like withdrawal, when we use smoothing we are not dealing with the underlying issue that is causing the conflict.  Instead, we are avoiding the issue.

The key difference between smoothing and avoidance is that with smoothing we try to emphasize the areas of agreements between the parties.  This is a form of focusing on the positive.

We can use smoothing when the stakes are not very high or when we want to maintain good working relationships.

Compromising is when we bargain and search for solutions that bring some degree of satisfaction in a dispute.  Compromising is characterized by give and take from each of the affected parties.  Each party to the conflict must be willing to give up something to get what they want.  This is best used when the stakes are not very high and when both parties want to maintain the relationship.

Compromising takes more emotional intelligence than withdrawing or smoothing because the issue is brought out into the open and discussed.  However, compromising requires each of the parties in the conflict to give up something.

Forcing is when one party forces their will or viewpoint on the other party.  It is often characterized by a competitiveness between two parties and a win/lose solution.

As you might imagine, forcing takes very little emotional intelligence.  The parties involved may see a particular conflict as one in a series of conflicts.  Each may feel that if they lose this one conflict, they can even things up later.  After a conflict is resolve, the two parties may simply be regrouping and preparing for the next battle.  Forcing is a shortsighted approach to conflict resolution.

Forcing should be used only when time is limited, when the long term relationship is not important, or when no other solution will resolve the situation.

Confrontation is facing the conflict directly and using problem-solving to work through the disagreement.  When we use confrontation, we bring the conflict out into the open so that we can deal with it.  Confrontation is what Stephen Covey described as seeking a win-win solution .  As you might guess, confrontation is the highest in emotional intelligence of all the conflict resolution approaches.

I learned about using confrontation to resolve conflict in an embarrassing way.  A number of years ago I was hired as a test manager for a large systems integration project.  I was actually a co-test manager; I was to partner with another manager to complete the testing.  I found working with the co-test manager difficult to say the least.  I was organized and had experience with test planning and execution.  My fellow test manager was experienced with the technology we were using but lacked the skills to organize and execute the testing.  I became frustrated.  After some half-hearted attempts to talk to my co-test manager, I went to the project director.  I told him that I had an issue with my co-test manager.  His response was to meet him for lunch at a specific restaurant that day.

When I arrived for lunch, I was surprised to see the project director sitting in a cozy round booth with my co-test manager.   I sat down with the two of them and immediately the project director asked me what it was about my co-test manager that I needed to discuss with him.  I was embarrassed to say the least.

The confrontation with the project director taught me a few things.  First, I learned that I should have spent more time trying to work through the issue with my co-test manager before bringing it to the project director.  Second, I learned that the reason the project director paired us up was exactly the issue I wanted to complain about – we had different strengths and skills sets.  Third, I learned that the most direct way to resolve an issue was to directly confront it.

I try to remember these lessons when individuals come to me with issues or conflicts on a project.  I try to tell them that the shortest distance between two people is a straight line and that is the most direct way to resolve a conflict.

Applying Emotional Intelligence to Conflict Resolution
Beyond looking at the levels of emotional intelligence in each of the conflict resolution approaches, we can use what we know to better manage conflicts.  As you might guess by now, it starts with a focus on what each party is feeling.

Conflicts involve both facts and feelings.  It is usually easy to get the facts.  That is the “he said-she said” part of the transaction.  The facts are helpful as a starting point but they are only part of the story.  We need to get beyond the facts to understand WHY those facts matter so much to the parties involved.  That requires an understanding of the underlying feelings as well as the unstated wants and needs of each of the parties.

It is important to probe to find out what the parties in a conflict are feeling.  We need to listen emphatically and pay attention to feeling words and body language.  We may even need to ask.  I recall a situation where I had a team member who sat with his arms crossed, fiercely insisting “I am not angry”.  People in conflict will usually feeling scared, angry, or sad or some combination of all of these things.  They may be angry about critical remarks from a co-worker.  At the same time, they may be sad because their feelings are hurt and they want to be friends with the co-worker who made the remarks.  Finally, they may be scared of a confrontation or scared that they need to leave the project because of that person.

It would be unlikely that a team member involved in a conflict would be so forthright about their feelings.  More often, individuals will not be aware of the various mix of feelings they are experiencing.  This is an area where the project manager can lead or coax them to appreciate the different feelings they are experiencing.

Understanding the feeling is the first step.  The second step is to identify the underlying want or need.  Some common wants and needs of project stakeholders are shown below:
• want to be recognized
• want to be important
• want to be productive
• want to be promoted
• want to feel part of the community
• need to make more money
• need to express themselves
• need to be loved

When we understand the underlying wants and needs of the affected parties, we understand their motivation.  Then we can work together to address the issue or conflict that is caused by the underlying want and need.  We can help each party to the conflict understand the wants and needs of the other party and to achieve their own wants and needs.

If You Are the Conflict
Our approach may vary a little if we are a part of the conflict or the cause of the conflict.  If we are part of the conflict, we need to first orient to ourselves.  The questions that we need to ask remain the same.  We need to understand what it is that we are feeling.  We will typically be sad, angry or scared.  We go further by asking what it is that we are sad, angry or scared about.  What is our underlying want or need in this situation?  How does this conflict move us closer or farther from our wants and needs?

Once we understand where we are coming from, then we can evaluate the other person.  We start by trying to understand what they are feeling.  Then we explore what they want and need in this situation.  Then we explore ways to work with them through the conflict.  We may want to think it through on our own and then discuss it with the other party.  If it is tense or uncomfortable with just the two of you, ask for a peer manager or disinterested 3rd party to join the discussion.

Bottom Line:  Project conflicts are inevitable; you should expect them and be prepared.  The way you manage conflict will define you as a project leader.  If you choose to calmly lead others through the conflict by exploring the emotions involved, you will strengthen your relationships and build the team.