Organization and planning are key skills for project managers. Without carefully mapping deadlines and budgets, customers can grow increasingly frustrated with late and underperforming products. However, there’s another side to project management that’s equally as important: people management.
People skills like conflict negotiation and confrontation are essential for new PMs who are leading their organizations. Without conflict management skills, teams are likely to crumble under the weight of unresolved issues.
Even the most experienced PMs can find conflict difficult to resolve; those just entering the field may find it nearly impossible. Here’s how you can navigate delicate situations and face conflict head on.
Conflict is An Inevitable Part of Project Management
Conflict isn’t something that should be avoided at all costs, but rather viewed as a natural part of the office environment. Bruce Harpham, author of "Project Managers At Work,” reports that 95 percent of employees say they experience conflict with other teams. Even the best run companies and most cohesive departments are likely to experience conflict at any given time.
Instead of quashing conflict, PMs should work to understand what causes it. Harpham points out that the top two sources of conflict are conflicting priorities and a lack of communication. Reducing those are much more effective than trying to prevent conflict outright, and the actions you take to clarify priorities and communication will actually lead to a better workplace.
In fact, teams that avoid conflict have a harder time overcoming obstacles and solving problems without a manager’s intervention than those that try to solve the root issues.
“When your team is afraid of conflict, they are essentially afraid of each other,” Rachel Burger, senior project management and productivity analyst, writes. “They don’t trust one another to be respectful and productive.” She cites multiple studies and instances where teams work through conflict and come out stronger because of it.
Teams that have to run to management for any minor problem will struggle with autonomy and will be less productive because of their inability to think critically and solve problems on their own. Furthermore, if your team members feel too fearful to even approach each other, you likely work in a toxic and unhealthy work environment.
Confrontation Isn’t Easy, Regardless of Your Position
It’s not just new PMs that can find it difficult to confront issues. Ron Ashkenas, a partner emeritus at Schaffer Consulting, says he’s seen even the most confident executives side-step conflict and avoid difficult conversations.
Ashkenas shares a story about one manager who went around the CEO to the board because she thought a direct conversation wouldn’t solve anything.
“We often avoid difficult situations or conversations because we think that they won’t be productive, that we won’t be able to convince the other party to come around to our point of view,” he writes. “Because we start with this kind of win-lose perspective (and don’t want to lose), we seek ways around the confrontation and often end up causing more damage.”
When people view conflict resolution as futile, they tend to avoid confrontation or make the problem worse by involving unnecessary third parties.
New PMs are Likely to Experience Conflict With Their Teams
There are growing pains and adjustment periods whenever you step into a new role, and project managers in particular might find themselves at odds with other employees almost immediately. This isn’t necessarily a bad omen as long as you address the concerns and issues thoroughly.
“The project management style of the project manager can trigger problems,” Arvind Rongala, head of global training delivery at Invensis, writes. He uses the example of a structure-based project manager working with a creative team that is used to more flexibility, but there can be problems with any project when the PM and production team disagree on a process.
New PMs in particular may struggle to change the behavior of a team that is used to doing things certain ways until the team sees that the improvements are in fact better for the company.
There are Multiple Ways to Approach Conflict in Your Organization
How you approach conflict says a lot about your management style and will affect how your peers and employees perceive you. Jordan James at Activia, a UK-based business training course provider, lists five ways PMs approach conflict. Some are more effective than others, and you will likely use all of these methods (whether you intend to or not) throughout your career.
The five conflict-resolution styles include:
Avoiding an issue in hopes that it will resolve itself.
Smoothing over the situation by highlighting what both parties agree on and downplaying disagreements.
Forcing a solution on both parties when they seemingly can’t agree on a compromise.
Compromising with everyone involved so both parties get a little and give a litte.
Confronting the problem head on to get to the core issue and coming to the best decision for the company and everyone involved.
While confrontation is viewed as the best method for conflict resolution, many PMs will choose other methods until there’s more time to address it properly. The worst approach is to avoid conflict altogether and hope the issue fizzles out.
“Conflict that is not addressed will find an outlet eventually,” Dr. Jennie Walker, principal at Luminary Global, writes. “Avoiding it may in fact escalate the intensity by allowing time for more misunderstandings to occur. Avoidance may also damage employees’ belief in the manager’s competence in maintaining a harmonious team environment.”
Approaching conflict and confrontation with fear will limit your project management career and create a negative work environment for others around you. While you may not be an expert in confronting problems or compromising when you first start, taking steps to hone these skills will make you more effective than PMs who force solutions or ignore issues.
8 Tips to Effectively Manage Conflict as a New Project Manager
Facing conflict head on is the first part of successful project management. The next part is knowing how to do that correctly. Follow these steps to mediate and work with employees successfully, no matter the issue.
Learn About the Team Dynamics In Your Workplace
Getting to know your team is essential for any new PM. While everyone can work together professionally, it’s up to you to understand what the strengths and weaknesses are for your staff. PMs also need to get to know everyone’s personality type to learn how they will react in different situations.
“Understanding who you are working with and who is working with each other will help give you a better idea on how to react to different situations,” the team at Think IT writes. “It may even help you notice ahead of time where conflict could arise based on the different personality types that are working together.”
New PMs might struggle initially to analyze team members, but it’s a skill that comes with time and experience.
Understand Your Role as a Mediator and Objective Party
New project managers sometimes try to be problem solvers involved in every conversation. Not only does this put stress on you to fix everything, it can also make you wildly unpopular if you manage your team with an iron fist. Instead, leadership coach Emilie Shoop encourages PMs to serve as mediators and help employees arrive at their own solutions.
“As the manager, you are going to stay unemotional and unattached to the conflict and be the guide,” Shoop writes. “If one side gets heated and the other shuts down, ask questions so that they can explain to you what is upsetting them.”
By staying neutral and helping both sides reach a decision, you serve as a conflict-resolution resource instead of judge, jury and executioner.
Separate Personal from Professional
The modern workplace is increasingly casual, and people are prone to building personal relationships with their peers the longer they work together. While teamwork and camaraderie are certainly assets to a company, they can lead to difficult situations when conflict arises.
“It is important to separate the person from the conflict and remember that it is about the process, not the person,” Patricia Lotich, business management consultant, says. “Focus on the issue and avoid tying the issue to a particular person or persons.”
Managers promoted internally might struggle more than those hired from outside the organization. Craig Cincotta, director of communications for Microsoft, has watched managers realize that people who were once their peers are now their employees. The relationship has changed.
“You are now their boss and you will need to wear that hat when you are in the office,” Cincotta writes. “You can never allow yourself to have personal relationships cloud business decisions.”
Admittedly, this is an acquired skill. It’s hard to maintain objectivity when personal relationships and biases form in the office. However, successful PMs need to take an objective approach if they want to be fair mediators.
Listen to Others and Show That You Care
Strong managers aren’t afraid of seeking the opinions of colleagues and team members. They will also create an environment in which employees feel safe to speak and know their concerns are heard. Geoff Teehan, product design director at Facebook, refers to this as compassionate confrontation.
Teehan shares a personal story where he received negative feedback about a lack of communication and transparency from a team member. He set up a time and gave them space to voice their concerns. At first, the meeting was tense, but then the team felt comfortable discussing problems and issues in the organization.
When people in an organization feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, confrontation becomes less intimidating and employees can actively talk through their conflicts.
Validate the Emotions of Everyone Involved
Conflict is rarely rooted in logic. Emotions come into play when feelings are hurt and nerves make people fearful. GQ editor Ross McCammon created a wonderfully honest guide about the emotions of confrontation in the workplace. He says that while managers shouldn’t focus on the negative actions of an employee, they shouldn’t be glossed over either.
Covering or ignoring a problem fails to validate the issue to the person who probably felt nervous about bringing it to the PM’s attention in the first place. McCammon even believes it’s okay to express annoyance, frustration, and anger (in a healthy and professional manner of course). Hiding emotions with a false smile or downplaying the problems means they might not be taken seriously or could go unresolved because no one realizes how serious the issue is.
Showing emotion can be a powerful tool to help all parties involved fully understand the conflict.
Gabrielle Adams, a social scientist and leadership specialist, discovered that there are significant misunderstandings between people who commit harm and their victims. Oftentimes, the people who cause harm didn’t do it intentionally and felt guilty for causing pain, while those who are harmed assume the damage was intentional. Not only do these perceptions escalate conflict, they make it hard for people to speak out.
As a solution, Adams encourages people to empathize with each other and look at both sides, to see whether the issues were intentionally created or are due to a misunderstanding.
Focus on Solutions
Once the problems are discussed and everyone feels heard, the PM can pivot to finding a fair solution.
Dr. Melinda Fouts, executive coach of Success Starts With You, advises people to focus on the ideal outcome within meetings. PMs can also ask for both parties to propose solutions to the problem and then work backwards to get to the other issues and emotions at the root of the problem.
Sometimes employees simply want to air their grievances and feel heard. If, however, you don’t end with a solution or plan to move forward, what was the point of the meeting?
Make a Decision and Stick to It
While managers need to practice their mediation and confrontation skills, others might also struggle with strong decision-making.
“Without any prior management experience, new managers can experience something called decision paralysis,” management expert Avery Augustine writes at The Muse. “New managers don’t want to make mistakes or bad calls. So instead, they often delay and delay, never making the decision at all.”
Yes, it is intimidating making a choice that affects your department, employees and production, but making those choices is the role of management. It’s crucial for PMs to make decisions and stand by them.
Every conflict is unique, but you’re likely to discover patterns in problems the more you face them. The only way to get better at mediating problems and resolving issues is to practice and work carefully with your team.