Chapter 20 - Softskills

5. Conflict Management

Short story…

…from Carl Rogers's life
Four years ago after a meeting, sub-project manager Rick approached Carl Rogers.

"You know, I often feel pretty stressed out and I'm under a lot of pressure. Then one team member will come along demanding a quick decision. Maybe that person has been given a task to perform but hasn't done it as we had discussed or how I had planned it. Or maybe one of the team hasn't been paying attention. So, what do I do…?" He hung his head and continued, "I say something hurtful or I raise my voice and shout. Ultimately, I end up hurting the person I'm talking to. If I'm lucky, he'll tell me how the message came across."

Carl Rogers thought about it. "But that also gives you the unique opportunity to say you're sorry." Rick replied, "Yes, but what if the person doesn't say anything. Then it's difficult. I need a neutral observer who can act as an advisor and tell me how he saw the whole thing." "And what then?" asked Carl Rogers.

"Then I could apologise!" "You have to know that it isn't what you say but how you say it", said Carl. "Is there an alternative to apologising?" asked Rick.

"Of course, there is", said Carl Rogers. "It makes good sense to speak less forcefully in a quiet voice and use softer undertones. Then you can create a climate that encourages communication and where people don't get hurt. Always remember that people's nerves are on edge in times of crises and conflict and that you'll cause more pain with harsh words in this kind of a situation then you would under normal circumstances. The person with the communication problem is usually the one who's talking", explained Carl Rogers, "Not the person who's listening. So, the person talking has a unique opportunity. He has the power to speak with authority, but also with compassion. Take a deep breath, smile, establish eye contact, talk clearly and comprehensibly and keep your voice calm and quiet. After all, we aren't in the army!" Rick was glad that he had talked to his project manager.

A conflict-free project is an extremely rare phenomenon. Conflicts can still occur even if rules have been agreed upon and contracts concluded because the various project participants almost always have different expectations of the project. Differences of opinion about objectives and procedures, (non-performance of) work, missed deadlines, budget overruns and interpersonal problems can escalate to conflicts. Most conflicts are seriously detrimental to project progress. If they are not promptly addressed and resolved, the conflict-resolution process can be lengthy and costly because conflicts impair work on the project deliverable. The project manager must therefore be aware of the causes of conflicts, be able to recognize impending conflicts and know how to resolve them.

Most conflicts are not spontaneous. They generally build up in the background over a long time (latent phase). In order to recognize potential problems in this phase, you should be capable of attuning yourself to conflict indicators (e.g. the atmosphere in the project environment).

Some reasons for conflicts are as follows:

  • Project participants argue at length about a specific technical problem.
  • Staff are not willing to listen to one another.
  • Managers sell their staff's ideas to customers or senior management as their own.
  • Staff dismiss colleagues' suggestions before they can be discussed.
  • Managers don't accept the proposals that their staff make. These members then become demotivated.
  • Former rivalries between individuals or groups resurface.
  • Affinity or antipathy towards opinion cause people to take sides.
  • Staff give colleagues the impression that they are incompetent.
  • Staff undermine a colleague or superior in the presence of managers.
  • Staff are not patient enough with their colleagues.
  • Project meetings take too long and don't deliver the desired outcomes.
  • Staff repeatedly deliver inadequate results.
  • Staff in a specific department refuse implement a strategy developed by interdepartmental project team.

Conflict resolution

Conflict prevention measures

In order to prevent conflicts, you have to look behind the scenes instead of focusing on obvious facts.

Changes during the project lifecycle (e.g. team composition, customer contact) result in changes to the work and project environments. This could cause conflicts, too. One member of staff may suddenly find that he has more work to do, because his colleague's holiday replacement has neither the appropriate qualifications nor the inclination to familiarise himself with the work for such a short period.

The following measures can help you to prevent conflicts.

  • Open information policy vis-à-vis stakeholders
  • Involving the people affected in important decisions
  • Taking fears and concerns seriously
  • Creating a climate of trust
  • Investigating the overt and covert objectives of all the people involved and discussing them openly
  • Clarifying tasks and responsibilities each time the team structure changes
  • Discussing different understandings of processes and work methods
  • Providing and requesting regular feedback, possibly with the assistance of an external feedback coordinator
  • Expelling team members who have a lasting negative effect on the team

Conflict resolution process

As soon as a conflict arose the following process can help to resolve it:

Steps towards conflict resolution graphically shown.

In addition to this process it is important to take warning signals seriously (at an early stage). The true cause should always be investigated. This is important to deal with the conflict directly where it has arisen, but also to avoid future conflicts of this source. Regardless of the conflict, it should always be kept in mind that the other party should never lose face, because this could turn a conflict on a factual level into one on an emotional level.

Functions

Conflicts are often considered to be exclusively destructive. However, this viewpoint is too one-sided because conflicts also present opportunities, especially when the conflict arises at an early stage of the project and if team members are not emotionally involved. Additionally, people can learn from such situations and they also foster personal development. As a result, innovative approaches to resolving conflicts are often found.

A conflict implies more than just trouble.It can also have a positive effect when a conflict occurs in a project.

Short story…

…from Carl Rogers's life
During the hay fever medication project after an important meeting.

Dr. Rogers rolled his eyes "I wouldn't even dream of approaching William Rose." He was speaking quietly, but with determination and absolute clarity. His development manager Mr. Smith was really only trying to build a bridge for the project manager he admired, but the meeting didn't go well at all, partly because of Carl's stance on the whole issue.

"Now all those little things have built up into bigger problems. Listen Carl, I can understand your frustration and injured pride very well. But I think it would show your strength of character if you would talk to William Rose again. I really do believe that a lot of issues can easily be resolved in a face-to-face talk. It's one of the quickest ways to clear up an unpleasant situation." "No", said Rogers, "I've made up my mind and that's final." Gaunt faced, he turned away and walked to the door. Before leaving the room, he wished Mr. Smith a pleasant evening.

"What's the matter? You look like you've had a bad day. What happened?" Sabina was sitting opposite her husband at the dining table, a concerned look on her face. He was chewing his steak unenthusiastically.

"Not now. I'm trying to enjoy my food", he answered. But Sabina refused to be deterred. "Come on, you may as well talk about it. Otherwise I'm not going to enjoy my steak either. Carl told her about the meeting and how he thought that the project team had behaved inexcusably. The worst thing was William Rose's brazenness. "You know, I've given him so many opportunities. He's absolutely useless. He's professionally incompetent and completely uptight. You have to watch every word you say to him because he takes offence so easily. It makes me furious even just to think about him. Then Mr. Smith went and said that I should call him and offer to go through it all again." Sabina listened attentively to her husband. "So there you have it." Carl put a forkful of steak into his mouth. "What do you think? What shall I do?"

Sabina knew her husband well enough to be able to assess the situation correctly. "You're an intelligent and dynamic man. You've also got a pretty wiry build. And that's one of your problems. If you don't eat enough, your sugar level gets too low and you overreact. Sometimes you even explode. That's one part of the problem. The other is your competence. Being intelligent and dynamic has always paid into your reputation and that sometimes makes you a bit conceited and condescending."

Slowly and deliberately, Sabina addressed her husband's main problems. He responded to every one of Sabina's sentences with a nod. Without interrupting, he gave her the opportunity to present things as she saw them. He loved her ability to understand a problem and put the whole thing in a nutshell. He looked at her intently as she talked about his physical build, the effects of his low blood sugar and his main problems. He could follow what she was saying without any problem and he had no doubt whatsoever that her appraisal of the situation was completely accurate.

"So, Carl, you're going to have to eat more during the day so that you can control your blood sugar level. But that's only one aspect of the problem." Carl stopped chewing. "What do you mean, only one aspect of the problem. What's coming now?" "Well", said Sabina, "physical problems often go hand in hand with psychological problems. None of us are perfect. And I think you've definitely got a problem that has a lot to do with how successful you've been. What you've achieved is fantastic. You're an excellent and competent project manager. You convey strength, your instructions are clear and to the point, you're reliable and you've always been results-oriented and optimistic. I enjoy having you as my husband and people like working with you very much. I'm sure your team members will agree with me, generally speaking. And you know that I really love sharing our home with you. That having been said, you have to be careful not to give people the impression that you're being condescending or make your team members think that you're conceited." "Whaaat?" said Carl, grimacing. "Are you saying I'm condescending and conceited? I never wanted to give people that impression. Why do you think that happens?"

"Well", said Sabina, "You did ask me for my opinion. I've thought about what you said and told you how some things seem to me. Obviously, you're absolutely entitled to tell me to shut up. Or we can continue talking it through and see how we can put things right." "I can't talk anymore now. Let's pick it up again tomorrow morning." Carl was even more contemplative than he'd been before.

At breakfast, he was very quiet. Looking tired, with dark shadows under his eyes, he started talking about his restless night. "And I just couldn't stop thinking about all the things you said last night. You're right. Sometimes I really am conceited and vain." "It's OK to be proud of what you've achieved", interjected Sabina, "After all, you've achieved a lot of things to be proud of." "Yes, but I shouldn't keep pushing it down other people's throats", admitted Carl.

Carl's expression lightened up again. "The first thing I'm going to do at work today is sit down and talk to William Rose. He might be having problems in his sub-project that I don't know about. I don't want the project to fail because of my narrow-mindedness." "I think you'll find that the problem isn't as big as it initially seemed", said Sabina, giving her husband an understanding look.

Causes

The causes of conflicts are either located at the

  • objective level (= factual/content level), or
  • psychosocial level (= emotional/relationship level).

It is necessary that you bear in mind that many conflicts that are apparently objective conflicts actually have their root cause at the psychosocial level.

Conflicts at objective level

Conflicts that occur at the objective level can be sub-divided into:

1. Objective-related conflicts:
If different project participants pursue different objectives in the same project, they are experiencing an objective-related conflict.

2. Assessment-related conflicts:
These conflicts arise in a project when participants differ in their assessment of facts because they perceive and process information in different ways. One aspect of project work that often causes conflicts is the result of estimates (e.g. time required, costs or project risks).

3. Distribution-related conflicts:
These conflicts occur when different project participants compete for the same resources.

Psychosocial conflicts

Psychosocial conflicts generally occur when different personalities, values and objectives collide. When a project commences, project team members, who do not initially know each other, have to work together and familiarise themselves with project processes. This is rarely conflict-free. If interpersonal problems are exacerbated by considerable pressure to deliver successful results, the situation will soon become critical. Social perceptions play an important role in psychosocial conflicts.

Unrecognized psychosocial conflicts

Conflicts at psychosocial level are often not recognized as such but are assumed to be related to the objective level.

When psychosocial conflicts occur, it may be necessary to call in an external expert (e.g. coach, psychologist, mediator). It is difficult for you as the project manager to identify the covert desires and expectations of project participants. Accordingly, it is just as difficult for you to solve these kinds of conflicts.

Causes of conflicts from a process viewpoint

There are four different process levels where conflicts can be allocated.

Process Conflicts arise…
Product creation process …while your team works on the project deliverable since some team members have a different level of knowledge, different interests and objectives.
…if some team members have a higher knowledge in one field than others.
→ To prevent this: Ensure that the right people are assigned to the project team and that people can express their opinion.
Project management process …between project personnel and department personnel when a project is organised in a matrix organisation, especially when it comes to the issues of time and finances.
…during project planning because plans only provide an outline of future developments that never quite happen as envisaged.
…because your project management team will inevitably encounter regular unscheduled deviations and many project participants could attribute these deviations to planning mistakes and feel the need to blame somebody for them.
→ To prevent this: Implement a mature project culture.
Team development process …because every team development process comprises several development phases. During the conflict team members attempt to achieve a viable working relationship (includes clique formation, discussions about methods or the purpose of teamwork and negotiations to clarify power and decision-making structures).
→ To prevent this: Keep in mind that a high level of social and emotional competence is needed, at least from your side.
Decision-making process …because they are triggered by different ideas held by stakeholders about project solutions.
To prevent this:
→ Clarify and redefine the project charter on a regular basis in conjunction with the relevant decision-makers.
→ Ensure the transparency of reciprocal expectations and requirements as well as decision-making scope.

Crisis prevention

Crisis prevention, both at relationship and objective level, depends to a great extent on communication. The central elements of crisis prevention are:

  • Provision of comprehensive information to stakeholders
  • Proactive dialogue with stakeholders
  • An efficient reporting system
  • An open and trusting project and corporate climate
  • A project manager with a cooperative management style

Summary

To summarise the keywords of that chapter, here is a quick overview:

Technical term Definition
Crisis-prone processes Product creation process
Project management process
Team development process
Decision-making process
Objective level of conflicts Conflict on a factual and/or content level
Psychosocial level of conflicts Conflict on an emotional and/or relationship level

Test yourself!

Now it is time to check your knowledge.

Answer the following questions for yourself. Please take your time and think carefully about what you would answer before revealing the solution.

How can conflicts arise?

Conflicts are basically characterised by the incompatibility of actions, motives or behaviour. Different project team members can have different expectations of the project.

Many conflicts arise because of the personality or personal conduct of project participants.

How can one recognize a conflict?

Most conflicts are not spontaneous (latent phase), so you can monitor team member behaviour as an indication of potential or existing conflicts, e.g.:

  • Staff cannot agree
  • Staff aren't willing to listen to each other
  • Managers don't accept the proposals that their staff make
  • Side taking initiated by opinion leaders
  • Staff accuse colleagues of incompetence
  • Staff undermine a colleague in the presence of managers
  • Project meetings do not bring about the desired outcome
  • Decision-makers are making decisions too late
How can conflicts be resolved?
  • Through cooperative conflict regulation
  • Standard questions for conflict resolution
  • Mediation
  • Arbitration
What measures can be implemented to prevent conflicts?

In order to prevent conflicts, you have to look behind the scenes instead of focusing on obvious facts:

  • Open information policy vis-à-vis stakeholders
  • Involvement of the people affected in important decisions
  • Taking fears and concerns seriously
  • Creating a climate of trust
  • Investigate overt and covert objectives and discuss them openly
  • Clarification of tasks/responsibilities each time the team structure changes
  • Facilitate/request regular feedback
  • Expulsion of team members who have a lasting negative effect on the team
What functions can conflicts have?
  • They indicate that changes are necessary.
  • They reveal opportunities.
  • They "clear the air" in unpleasant and obstructive situations.
  • They lead to a mature project culture.
  • They promote team spirit.
  • They enable team solutions.
  • They bring things out into the open.
Which causes of conflicts can be found on which levels?

Objective level (technical/content-related)

  • Objective-related conflicts
  • Assessment-related conflicts
  • Distribution-related conflicts (resource distribution)

Psychosocial level (emotional)

  • Different personalities with different values and goals

Conflicts at psychosocial level are often not recognized as such, but assumed to be related to the objective level.

Which conflicts are specific to certain project processes?

Product creation process

  • Different knowledge, interests and objectives, lack of or inadequate know-how

Project management process

  • Involvement of the organisation, e.g. matrix organisation
  • Planning (outline of future developments that never really happen as envisaged )
  • Deviations are perceived as planning mistakes and people look for someone to blame

Team development process

  • Disquiet phase (storming) when cliques are formed, methods and the purpose of working together are discussed
  • Negotiation of unresolved power and decision-making structures

Decision-making process

  • Different ideas about project solutions, especially when they are not or hardly involved in the solution finding process
  • Ambiguously formulated decision powers cause conflicts
Which activities are central elements of crisis prevention?
  • Provision of comprehensive information to stakeholders
  • Proactive stakeholder dialogue
  • Efficient reporting system
  • An open and trust-based climate
  • Cooperative management style