Conflict. Bring it on?

– Conflict is good, my junior colleague said to me on our way to an important meeting. He just read an article in HBR.

I wondered if he meant conflict in the team or with the client. It could have been on either fronts. Or even on both.

I did not pursue that conversation back then. I knew he was going through a tough period in his personal life and was looking for an excuse to vent his spleen. “Not on my watch”, I thought back then. Bringing personal conflict into professional life is a no win-win. Same is valid the other way around.

Let’s look at origin of the word: “conflict” com “with, together” (see con-) + fligere “to strike” (see afflict). Think about it.

Conflict happens quite often in projects. Some time it is avoidable. Sometimes, it is unavoidable. When it happens, there are things to do or abstain from. It depends on a series of factors, among which I would consider the following:

1. The origin of conflict

Different priorities, incompatible communication styles, unclear roles or a lack of trust are often at the root of conflict between team members. Unmet expectations, exceeded budget, unmet objectives or deadlines can generate conflicts with the project sponsor or contractors.

2. The parties to conflict

Conflicts happen between team members, with the project’s sponsor or contractors.

3. The objective of the conflict or what are the parties after.

Some just love to live in a perpetual conflictual state with no positive objective in mind. Some want to bring to the surface things, which are not seen as positive or beneficial for the project or a party concerned.

Depending on the answers to the above, a conflict management strategy has to be put in place. It has to be managed, otherwise it will manage the project right into failure or difficulties.

There is plenty of literature on approaches to manage conflict. Here are a number of my observations as a project manager over a number of years in a number of projects:

1. Start with checking your assumptions about the origin of the conflict and the purpose of parties concerned. Do not be mislead and do not mislead.

2. Look for common ground. For example, the project sponsor wants more visibility and threatens to cut funds. At the same time, the project team is reluctant to go “public” and feels unappreciated. A common ground could be to present the visibility requirement of the sponsor as an opportunity to do justice to the project team’s work.

3. Keep your head and stay neutral, the same way Switzerland preserves hers. Avoid at all costs taking sides, unless there is blatant injustice to any of the parties concerned. For example, a team assistant blaming the driver for a failure of the translation equipment and putting at risk the entire event. A good conflict management strategy in this case is to talk to all concerned and find out what happened exactly and ask both of them to read again their respective job descriptions. Designing a standard operating event management procedure and/or an event preparation check list helps to prevent potential future conflicts.

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