I remember the day clearly: I slipped into the office 15 minutes late thanks to a transit delay, feeling slightly frazzled. As I sat down at my work station, I noticed that the office — despite most of my colleagues being there — was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. In my absence, I’d missed one of our team members “blowing up,” apparently shouting at the project manager about some frustrations he had with the project. Apparently, he had stormed out only moments before I got there.
Although I missed the drama, the office was abuzz all day once the shock wore off. Our project manager, however friendly he was, did nothing to discuss the conflict or try to work with my colleague’s frustrations. He was what you might call “conflict-averse.” Many of us are, but as project managers, it is our responsibility to help prevent and handle any conflicts when problems arise.
Here are some tips and strategies for preparing for and managing conflict as a project manager.
Define Expected Behavior
Not all conflict can be avoided, but there are things you can do to reduce the potential for problems. Start by setting a standard of expected behavior in the workplace. It’s best if you can create these expectations with your team and work together to define these standards. As a manager, it’s your job to set the tone. You can do this by writing detailed job descriptions (and stick with them — scope creep is a big no-no), creating a framework for how discussions take place, being communicative and clear about who is responsible for what and the hierarchy of the project staff, and defining proper business practices—include this in onboarding.
Though this may make introverts cringe, team-building events/exercises are a good way to establish a friendly rapport between the whole team. The clearer you are about guidelines and expectations, the easier it will be for your team to understand what is expected and—hopefully—stick with it.
Face Conflict Head-On
Depending on your personality type, there are several ways you may typically respond to conflict. You might ignore it and let the team members work it out amongst themselves, but if there is a risk of escalation, this method is not advised. Take a course on leadership development and management if you’re uncomfortable being “the boss” or looking conflict head-on. In most cases, being open and honest, and encouraging your team to do the same is the most effective way of dealing with conflict.
You have the authority as the project manager to act when it is required. Not doing so only gives clashes among team members the ‘legs’ they need to become confrontations that can have a severe impact on your project. Even if you consider yourself to have a conflict-averse personality, it’s your job to learn how to communicate effectively to handle conflict directly.
Don’t Place Blame — Look for the Root Cause
You know that people will make mistakes — as a project manager, you may witness that more often than you’d like. Regardless of whether you like it, we’re all human and we ALL make mistakes! Concentrating on someone’s mistake is possible to do without going so far as to point a finger at them and make them feel terrible about it. Did this person have the right information they needed to do their job well? Proper support? Did the checks and balances in your process work as intended? Was there a loss of context when information changed hands? Focusing on the process and figuring out how to improve such when mistakes are made can help people prevent mishaps in the future. Such an approach will also leave your team members feeling confident that you have their back when things go awry.
Collaborate to Find Solutions
Differences make the world go ‘round, but they can also cause people to butt heads and stir up work drama when misunderstandings caused by different communication styles occur. Three people in a room can hear a speaker say the same thing, but interpret it in three different ways, after all. This is particularly true for those of us who use messaging on Slack, work remotely, or potentially haven’t met our team members face-to-face. Don’t let a climate of working remotely exacerbate the pitfalls of conflict resolution or cause communication breakdown and conflict.
In the case of interpersonal conflict amongst team members (or you and a team member), invite each party to collaborate to find a solution. Extending an olive branch shows that you’re open to hearing everyone’s needs, are willing to listen, and that you understand that dealing with conflict is a two-way street. And, let’s remember: when an actionable insight comes from a team member, they’re more likely to act on it and work to improve things in the future, as they’ve felt heard and are (hopefully!) now more invested in the project.
When emotions are involved, it’s all too easy to steer off-course. Keep things goal-oriented. For many project managers, this is as second nature as its inherent to our jobs. Unfortunately, sticking to the goal can often be overlooked when emotions are at play.
Most people want to resolve conflicts, but what benefits can we tie to a specific conflict? When assessing how to handle a problem with a coward, you may find they’re more open to discussion if you bring up your shared goal. Say something like, “I want to find more ways to collaborate with you and flag issues early in the process,” or “Let’s take a look at how we can fix our process to catch this early next time.” If the situation calls for being more empathetic, say, “I want to know what I can do better to improve things next time.” This is essential when dealing with conflict in the workplace. It should always be a two-way street. Things won’t stay peaceful for long if only one person is doing all of the work to improve things.
Create Space for Conversation
An open-door policy is the best way to go as a project manager. Let your team know your door is always open for conversations they may need to have about anything they’re dealing with. This includes any mistakes they’ve made, to boot. Keep in mind; however, that “creating space” is about more than just creating a physical space for conversation. Create clear channels for peer feedback, and/or bottom-up feedback (employee to manager). This is essential when building a cohesive team. When your employees feel empowered and heard, they’re more likely to raise issues with you and take responsibility for their involvement when conflict arises.
Not everyone will have a take-charge attitude when it comes to conflict, so find ways to communicate a path to resolution (like the guidelines and expectations mentioned above), so that everyone understands that regular, healthy communication is a priority.
Communicate Take-Aways and Lessons Learned
What’s the point of all these sometimes difficult conversations if we don’t learn from them and improve our processes, team dynamics, and project culture?
Document errors and solutions, breakdowns in communication, and their sources. This can help your team work more collaboratively and know what to watch out for going forward. Clearly communicating actions that each person will take in the future as the result of the conflict-resolution conversation will make the future all that much easier. You’ll have documented conflict resolution techniques to refer to in the future, too. Communicating lessons learned also shows a commitment to growth and change. There is no worse feeling than going through a hard time with someone or something only to walk away feeling like it was all for naught. You want to make people feel motivated to deal with future clashes in a positive, healthy way.
As your team and project evolve, needs may change. Creating a work environment in which conflict is approached calmly with clear minds is a constant, never-ending project in and of itself. Stay in tune with your project culture and to the needs of your team members. Set an example when it comes to direct, clear communication, and provide as much information you can about expectations and guidelines for conflict resolution.
Remember to have a collaborative, problem-solving approach. Keep conversations goal-oriented. Focus on the root of the problem, not the person who caused it or made a mistake. Create an environment where everyone feels listened to and empowered. In doing these things, you’ll create an culture where everyone is, not only listening, but respectfully engaging, as needed.
What conflict resolution tactics have you used in your role as a project manager? Please share your experiences in the comments!