Conflict management in project teams

Manage conflicts in groups 2

Managing conflicts in groups is a conditio “sine qua non” of the team.

Avoiding conflicts is a pure utopia. A conflict is practically inevitable while working with others.

People have different points of view, and when these perceptions add up, these differences can turn into conflict.

However, the way in which the conflict is managed in the team determines the evolution of the situation. The conflict can, in fact, turn into an advantage for the team or contribute to its breakdown.

As a person, and as a Project Manager, you have more possibilities: you can choose to ignore the conflict, complain, blame someone or try to tackle it through techniques like negotiation or compromise.

It is clear that the best solution is always to face conflicts, but the question is how.

However, one aspect is always valid: the conflict must be faced constructively and with a plan. Otherwise, the risk is to create even bigger damage.

However, conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. If this is healthy and constructive, it can be a component of high-functioning teams.

Let ́s see why.

Conflict management in groups: how the conflict is born

The conflict arises from the differences between people. These are the same differences that often make various teams more effective than those made up of people with similar experiences and views.

When people with different views, experiences, skills and opinions are in charge of a project or challenge, the combined effort can surpass that of any other group of like-minded individuals.

Team members must be open to these differences and not allow them to turn into real disputes.

Understanding and appreciating the various points of view involved in conflicts are key factors for its resolution.

The important thing is to maintain a healthy balance between the constructive difference of opinions and avoiding negative and destructive conflicts.

Reaching and maintaining this balance requires well-developed team skills.

Let ́s first take a look at the common myths about workplace conflicts and how to resolve and prevent a conflict.

The common myths to debunk about workplace conflicts

  1. Conflict is always negative and should always be avoided at work. Actually, the opposite is true. When the problems are hidden or disguised, these are hardly solved, and consequently they transform into larger problems. The conflict must therefore be recognized and addressed.
  2. Difficult people are almost always the cause of a conflict. A bad behavior is certainly a cause of conflict, but even the failure to respect realistic expectations by the project manager can be a great contribution to a negative situation. If team members do not understand what the organization, project manager or their teammates expect, this can lead to confusion and conflict.
  3. The problem which is the root of a conflict is usually obvious. Problem solving is essential in conflict management, but the problem can not be solved until it is identified; in most cases this is not immediate. Getting to the source implies dialogues, conversations and, in some cases, some real investigative activities.
  4. In conflicts there are always winners and losers. When we deal with a conflict, we take a position based on our needs, desires and concerns. Focusing on interests rather than on positions is more effective for dealing with a conflict.
  5. It is the responsibility of the Project Manager, as Project Leader, to solve his team’s problems. Unless a problem affects performance or becomes really important within the team, a manager does not necessarily have to intervene.
    When managers intervene and exercise authority, employees lose the opportunity to develop their own conflict management capabilities.

Conflict resolution

The human experience of conflict involves our emotions, perceptions and actions. We experiment it on all three levels and we need to tackle them all in order to solve it.

The first step is certainly to recognize the conflict. Indeed, the tendency is to ignore the first negative signs, perhaps for convenience or fear, until these become really important.

As described in the sixth edition of the PMBOK, there are five general techniques in order to resolve conflicts. Let’s see them in detail.

1) Withdraw / avoid

This involves refraining from both actual and potential conflict situations or postponing the problem so that it can be better addressed or solved by others.

2) Smooth / accomodate

Here the points of agreement between the two “fronts” are emphasized, in order to try to maintain harmony.

It is therefore necessary to understand the situation and the point of view of each member and take time to make sure that each person’s position is heard and understood.

Each position must be clearly identified and articulated by those involved.

Manage conflicts in groups

Considering the facts, the hypotheses, the beliefs and the decision-making process that lead to the positions of others, the group will get a better understanding of the other points of view.

This can not only reveal new areas of agreement, but it can also bring to new ideas and solutions that make the best of each position and perspective.

3) Compromise / reconcile

This method involves looking for a solution that leads to a level of satisfaction for all the parties involved, even if it represents a temporary or partial solution of the conflict.

Once the parties have understood the positions of others, it will be easier to search for a common solution.

With all the points of view taken into consideration, it is easier to see the best way to follow and then reach an agreement.

4) Force / direct

This method is certainly more extreme than the others since it involves imposing a single point of view at the expense of the others. It is generally applied in cases of urgency and represents a strong solution.

5) Collaborate / problem solve

The most important thing in the whole process of resolving a conflict is that everyone keeps an open communication.

Active listening is equally essential, because in order to solve the conflict together, it is necessary to really understand the other person.

All the subjects involved, in this case, must agree to cooperate in order to resolve the conflict.

Conflict prevention

In addition to being able to manage team conflicts when they occur, project managers and their teams must develop ways to prevent conflicts from becoming harmful.

Team members can learn skills and behaviors that facilitate this process.

Here are some of the main aspects to focus on:

  • Deal with a conflict immediately and avoid the temptation to ignore it;
  • Be open: if people have problems, they must be expressed immediately, without the fear of being judged;
  • Adopt a clear communication and clearly articulate thoughts and ideas;
  • Practice active listening, paraphrasing, clarifying, questioning;
  • Practice the identification of hypotheses and ask “why” regularly;
  • Do not let the conflict become personal, stick to facts and problems;
  • Focus on viable solutions and do not think about what can not be changed;
  • Encourage different points of view and insist on an honest dialogue;
  • Do not blame anyone;
  • Demonstrate respect and, if the situation gets worse, take a break and wait for emotions and feelings to calm down;
  • Keep team problems within the team. Speaking of conflicts outside may lead to an increase in their severity.

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By addressing the conflict of the people in the group, it is possible to turn any disconnection or controversy into an opportunity, as well as increase the connection and trust between people.

Working towards a common solution leads the whole team to become more cohesive.

It is therefore possible to celebrate this moment, something as small as a congratulatory e-mail or a small gift promotes team bonding.

In conclusion, constructive conflict, if properly managed, can bring a team closer together.

Have you ever been involved in a workplace conflict? How did you deal with it? Tell us about your experience.

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