Most people would say they hate and avoid conflict. In this environment of staff cuts, there are probably a lot of people ducking conflict to keep under the radar. In my experience it’s not conflict, but confrontation that people hate. The problem with that is they avoid conflict; that’s one straight path to confrontation in my experience. By the time the issue becomes critical – or often, not that issue but another – there are so many frustrations in the emotional saddle bags that situations go from nothing to confrontation like a Ducati on the salt flats. Handle conflict well and you show up as a valuable employee; handle it badly, and you are part of the problem.
Let me explain why I think these two similar concepts are so different. Confrontation carries with it a winner loser relationship, a sense of battle. Conflict leaves an opening for clarification and resolution. For example, as PMs we often have issues relating to resources. Taking a confrontational approach means everyone who needs the resources decides their need is the most critical, and they all fight over that and the winner gets the resources and everyone else get a problem project. It becomes all about who’s the winner, and not about the project or the project portfolio. Taking a conflict resolution approach means everyone comes to the table to discuss solutions that best serve the project or portfolio. They work together to present recommendations to sponsors and everyone can win.
So, let’s step back into the real world where even I live. The real problem happens when people take a confrontational approach to conflict resolution. Some organizations have a culture of confrontation; the meaner dog will always win. If that’s your organization, play that game, or find a new organization. If you want to make a change in approach and your corporate culture is not junkyard dog, start by putting aside the idea that your needs are more important than anyone else’s.
You want to get to the point where people seek out conflict to resolve. When you get there, or even when you get nearer to ‘there’ than you are, confrontation will die away. Let’s go back to the resource example.
Your project and another project need the same QA resource at the same time to do the same task. Using conflict resolution means, you need to meet with the other PM. Your agenda is to discuss solutions to the conflict. Start with the other PM presenting their issue. That’s right, let them go first; that way you will be able to listen to their issue, paraphrase back and build trust before you state your issues. That means you listen to their needs, ask questions to clarify, and paraphrase from their point of view. It doesn’t mean you sit there nodding while you wait your turn to speak.
When you’ve understood their issue, you present your needs. How much of the capacity do you need; what wiggle room do you have in scheduling; why this QA resource is the only solution, and what is the ultimate impact on your project if you don’t get the resource. A key tip here, is to make sure you talk about the project, not you, and if you can talk about the impact on the organization’s portfolio, or even the business goals if you can. The purpose is not to build a case for how important your project is, but to build the resolution to a bigger goal than just the project.
The next step, after you’ve both laid out the issues, it’s time to look for mutual solutions. Often that’s possible; in fact, you might want to ask the QA resource for solutions, they are closest to the problem, after all. Most of the time, you will find a resolution in that meeting because you have both understood the facts of the problem. Sometimes, though, a problem is tough and will need more work.
The tip for this week: don’t avoid conflict, use this model for resolution
Start by understanding the problem from a project impact perspective
Then meet with the parties involved
Listen, ask questions, and paraphrase to understand the other point of view
Search for mutual solutions – meet as many of the project needs as you can.
Some interesting links
Academic Leadership Support
Susan B Wilson (no relation)