How To Deal With Conflict On A Project

Paul Naybour

As a project manager it is your job to deal with conflict on a project when it arises and this can mean having a potentially difficult conversation. You might want to avoid confrontation but you simply can’t so here are some tips to help you deal with those difficult conversations.

When people work together, live together or simply occupy the same space, conflict may arise. Conflict on a project can happen when a person is on the receiving end of behaviour or communication from another person and they do not consider that behaviour or communication to be appropriate or acceptable. You may experience direct conflict i.e. one team member is abrasive to another about a missed project milestone, or indirect i.e. one person is quietly gossiping or arriving late for work every day. But these types of situations will negatively impact your project and the people involved in the project so you need to resolve the issues behind them.

As Fahad Usmani points out on his PM Study Circle blog the consequences of improper conflict resolution are:

  • Low team morale
  • Impact on authority of the project manager
  • More personal clashes
  • Low productivity and efficiency
  • Low quality work

As a project manager, you may know the theory of how to deal with conflict, but the reality is often harder and if there is a major conflict it can be very difficult to deal with because it involves you having one of those difficult conversations. When difficult conversations need to be had, it can be all too easy to avoid them, which in turn results in conflicts, bad behaviour or negative atmospheres remaining as they are, or getting worse.

Mark Hazleton refers to this as the “avoidance approach” where you stay out of the conflict and remain neutral on the issues.  This is employed by individuals that do not have enough invested in the issue to see value in the conflict.  Often used when the conflict is not critical or is perceived to be beyond their capacity to manage and on minor conflicts where team members have already begun to formulate constructive resolutions and the project manager is unlikely to add value.

Do You Avoid Having Difficult Conversations?

It is not unusual to want to avoid having difficult conversations. You might be fantastic at leading and managing your team and getting them to milestones when everything is running smoothly, but when conflict arises you find you avoid dealing with the issue properly. Why is this?

Generally people avoid things because they are scared of something. Fear is not related to reason, it is an emotion so no matter how smart you are, you may still find yourself struggling with fear. The best project managers embrace fear. If you feel fear when it comes to a difficult situation at work, take action – don’t avoid the situation. Your fear is telling you something is wrong and needs fixing, it is not telling you to run away from the situation.

Here are some tips to help you get the best results from difficult conversations:

  • Use Emotional Intelligence – don’t go into the situation with a biased point of view. Use your emotional intelligence and try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, with consideration for how they are feeling and thinking.
  • Listen, Listen, Listen – Strip back your own feelings and really take the time and effort to listen properly to what the other person is saying to you.
  • Ask, Ask, Ask – Ask questions and gain information rather than speaking ‘at’ the other person.
  • Clearly Explain Yourself – If you are asking for a change in behaviour, or for a situation to change, explain your needs, instructions or thoughts clearly.
  • Use Your Body – Use your body to show you are listening and engaging with the other person. Use listening cues like nodding and maintain an open posture so you don’t appear closed off.
  • Stick to the Facts – Where possible try to stick to facts, and don’t dscuss feelings.
  • Compromise – Be willing to compromise to reach an agreeable outcome.
  • Encourage Ego’s And Defensiveness To Be Dropped – Encourage and reward positive behaviour and agreements in order to encourage the other person to ‘open up’.

As a project manager, it is important you are both direct and sensitive when you have a difficult conversation with someone. You must have both in order to succeed. Being direct and insensitive could be upsetting for the other person and may cause them to be defensive and resentful. Being sensitive and indirect could cause the other person to not understand how important your message is.

Dealing with conflict on a project is never easy, but it can be handled successful if you take a little time and effort to learn how to approach it properly. Think you need to improve your conflict resolution skills? As a project manager it is a skill you will always need.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Upcoming Courses

Scroll to Top