Posted by: Craig Harding | October 14, 2009

How Do You Manage Conflicts as a PM?


Conflicts can arise at any time in a project. In fact, they are common. What is uncommon is the ability to deal with conflict and to resolve it competently. Generally this is because we tend to hold misunderstandings about conflict; and these misunderstandings prevent us from developing conflict management skills.

For example, many people strive to avoid conflict at all costs. As a result of this mindset, we don’t actually avoid conflict, we merely delay recognizing and dealing with conflict until it turns into a crisis that can threaten the project. The key is to recognize conflict early and deal with it effectively.

There are several important things to keep in mind about conflict:

  • Conflict is not necessarily destructive; it can be a positive force for change. Therefore, to manage conflict effectively, it helps to have a positive attitude toward it. Conflict is really opportunity.
  • Conflict usually occurs when people’s needs are not being met.
  • Conflicts are most likely to arise on a team during the “Storming” Phase. The Project Manager can best respond by clarifying roles and providing support.
  • The key to recognizing conflict early is to develop your sensitivity to the signals of conflict. A sense of discomfort or tension; specific, unsettling incidents; and misunderstandings are all signs of underlying conflict. A conflict left hidden and unresolved for too long can result in a crisis.
  • The way to get control over conflict is to a) Take a creative response to it and b) Aim for mutual gain.

When you need to Manage Conflicts

There is a window of opportunity that begins as soon as the signals tell you that a conflict may be present—and before these incipient conflicts become crises. This can happen at any point during the project. It is an important and ongoing responsibility.

Your Role in Conflict Management

As a project manager, it is your responsibility to resolve conflicts to maintain a positive and productive team.

When a resource creates conflict on the project, you must meet with the resource to seek a constructive resolution. When you do so, it is important to:

  • Do your homework and collect pertinent facts in advance
  • Listen to the resource,
  • Observe behaviors
  • Understand the issue from all perspectives, and
  • Focus on what can be done to improve the situation

You may sometimes have to manage conflicts with the client project lead, for example:
The team lead may feel obligated to support the client team members even when they are wrong. Keep in mind that the client team members were likely a team before you arrived on the project and you may find your project team pitted against the client team. It is the responsibility of the PM to remain objective and resolve issues based on facts rather than feelings.
This may involve delivering bad news to the project lead’s boss (to the best of your ability avoid affecting the project lead’s career).

If the agreements made for resolving the conflicts will have an impact on project deliverables, time, or budget, remember to use the formal Change Control process before making commitments that will change the project plan.

If a conflict is very large and involves policy or an irreconcilable difference over standards and goals, you may want to involve the project sponsor or steering committee. For example, if you learn that this conflict is stemming from the client’s suppressed feeling that the system is not a solution for their department; the best thing to do is to contact the sponsor.

If the conflict continues

Unresolved conflict should be handled (documented, tracked and managed) like any other issue/risk, unless the project becomes stalled. If that happens, as the PM you must contact the sponsor so that appropriate actions can be taken. It is very important that you first do your utmost to address and resolve the conflict before it reaches such an impasse. You don’t want to be in the position of taking a long-standing conflict to your sponsor, and having to explain that you have not yet made any attempt to resolve it yourself.

Acceptance Criteria for Conflict Management

Projects suffer when conflicts arise but are not addressed and resolved. For consultant project managers you want to meet your contractual obligations, but also want a good reference from your client. Unresolved conflict may prevent a good reference even if you meet other objectives. You will have done an excellent job of conflict management if you:

  • Identify a conflict early and determine what potential it has to jeopardize the project
  • Identify the key needs and concerns (interests) of the parties involved and where they overlap.
  • Explain how the conflict will affect the project if not resolved, and back this up with evidence (contract, SOW, status reports, or whatever is relevant).
  • Address the conflict situation with the parties involved and get agreement on a course of action that:
  • meets some key needs of all parties, and
  • removes the project from jeopardy
  • Follow up to ensure the problem is resolved, and if not, take further action.
  • Apply issue management as appropriate (don’t document a personality conflict, document slipped schedules or disagreement on task completion, etc.)
  • Any conflict situation
  • Your common sense, sensitivity, and detective work
  • SOW/scope definitions, contract, etc.
  • Status reports, turnaround documents, and other specific data.
  • Issue management and change control process as needed

Inputs to Conflict Management

Remember, all projects have conflicts of some form or another. As project manager it is your responsibility to remain objective and resolve issues to the best of your ability based on facts rather than feeling.




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