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To Understand Project Conflict, Start with the Feelings

I found an interesting post on managing project conflict over at Dyer Predictions, a cleverly named blog written by Sue Dyer.  I have written on conflict management in the past including how best to apply emotional intelligence to the traditional conflict resolution approaches like withdrawal, confrontation, smoothing or compromising.  I thought Sue’s three-step approach to managing conflict was a good starting point though perhaps too simplistic for experienced project managers:

1) Avoid Conflict by Establishing Ground Rules (such as by sticking with the present)

First, I don’t think that avoidance of conflict is a great strategy because conflict is inevitable and can actually be leveraged if managed properly.  That said, I do agree with Sue that ground rules are a good idea, though, sticking with the present would not be my first choice of a ground rule.  By sticking with the present, we don’t allow people to get down to what it is they are feeling and the underlying want and need that is not being addressed.  In other words, if I have a conflict on a project, I am probably feeling angry, scared, sad or some mix of all three.  There is an underlying want, need or hunger driving those feelings – such as a want to be recognized, a want to advance in my career, or a need to be appreciated.  It is those underlying wants that cause people to feel hurt that ultimately gets expressed by some type of conflict.

Ultimately, conflict is about people and emotions.  With emotional intelligence research we have established frameworks for developing relationships with others and resolving conflicts.  Here is my suggestion for a ground rule – Each person must take responsibility for their own feelings and for expressing their underlying wants and needs.

2) Team Members Can Only Discuss Technical Solutions to Project Problems

This one I do not agree with.  Beneath all technical problems is a people problem of some sort and that gets back to the feelings and wants and needs.  In fact, team members will often try to couch people problems as technical problems.  Without resolving the underlying people problem, those pesky technical problems will just keep on re-occuring or will resurface in other areas.

In terms of the traditional conflict resolution approaches, this is essentially using smoothing or forcing to make the conflict go away.

3) When You See (or feel compelled to write) Threatening Letters, Your Project is in Trouble

I do agree that when you see those threatening letters you have conflict!  Email letter bombs are one of the many emotional breakdowns that show people are not exercising emotional self-control.  I agree with Sue’s recommendation to bring in a neutral third party though I would suggest that the PM act as facilitator unless he/she is part of the conflict.  It is a great opportunity for the PM to show leadership and to model conflict resolution to the rest of the team.

As noted above, project conflict is about people and their emotions.  Good project managers can apply the lessons of emotional intelligence to resolve conflict and ultimately use that conflict to energize the project team.

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  1. Sue Dyer

    Thanks for your thoughts on my blog. Here are a couple of clarifications.
    The strategy of course is not to AVOID conflict. A very effective technique to help your team resolve issues is by bringing them into the present (using the present tense) so that the team has the “power” to resolve the issues. None of us has the power to change the past. Talking about what happened, how it happened and the associated conflict defuses the team’s power to actually resolve the issue. Bringing the issues into the present…What do we know, what are the options, how can we…This empowers the team to find resolution and actually then deal with the underlying hurt feelings, or frustration that was underlying the conflict.
    I agree with you completely that conflicts are NEVER about what people say they are. Conflict is always personal and at a feeling level, or there wouldn’t be conflict. There is a lot of energy in conflict. If you can use that energy toward constuctive solutions, excellent solutions are often found.
    Team members are never of course not limited to discussing technical solutions. However there is a window of opportunity when a technical solution is possible. After that window closes, the project will be directed to move forward with a mandate. This is not the best solution for the project or team. The team failed to find a solution in the time available.

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