How to Resolve Conflicts between Project Team Members

With most projects, the question isn’t if disagreements will occur between team members; it’s when. So you need to be prepared to resolve those differences of opinion with a conflict resolution plan that includes one or both of the following:

  • Standard approaches: Normal steps that you take to encourage people to develop a mutually agreeable solution

  • Escalation procedures: Steps you take if the people involved can’t readily resolve their differences

How to minimize conflict on your team

Throughout the life of a project, conflicts may arise around a myriad of professional, interpersonal, technical, and administrative issues. The first step toward minimizing the negative consequences of such conflicts is to avoid them before they occur. The following tips can help you do just that:

  • *Encourage people to participate in the development of the project plan.

  • Get commitments and expectations in writing.

  • Frequently monitor work in progress to identify and resolve any conflicts that arise before they become serious.

If a conflict does arise, one or more of the participants in the conflict or one or more people with knowledge of the issues around which the conflict arose need to take an active role to resolve the conflict.

The person or people chosen for this task should have knowledge of the conflict and the issues surrounding it, the techniques of proactive conflict resolution, the respect of the people involved in the conflict, and no preconceived preferences for any of the solutions of the people involved in the conflict.

Whether they informally assume the responsibility to help resolve the conflict or are assigned by the project manager or another member of management to do so, they should do the following:

  • Study the conflict and gather all related background information to identify the likely and underlying reasons for it.

  • Select and follow an appropriate resolution strategy.

  • Maintain an atmosphere of mutual cooperation when trying to find an acceptable solution.

As you work to understand the reasons for a conflict, remember that conflicts can arise over one or more of the following:

  • Facts: Objective data that describe a situation

  • Methods: How a person responds to particular values of data

  • Goals: What someone is ultimately trying to accomplish when she resolves the conflict

  • Values: The basic personal feelings and principals that motivate someone’s behavior

Keep in mind that personal beliefs about each of these four types of information can be due to

  • Incorrect information

  • Different perceptions or inferences based on the same information

  • Different reactions to the same information based on the position a person occupies or the role she plays on the team

Act out conflict resolution with a simple example

Suppose that Sarah and Jimmy have been assigned to develop recommendations for how to improve the production of a poorly performing unit in their company. After reviewing some related reports and having a few discussions, Sarah has decided the best way to improve performance is to fire two of the four people in the unit and retrain the other two.

In contrast, Jimmy has decided the only way to improve the unit’s performance is to fire all four people. At the moment, Sarah and Jimmy are at a standoff, but if they’re willing, they can take one of the following approaches to resolve their conflict:

  • Competition (Forcing): Both people assertively act to have their solution to the conflict chosen. (There’s a winner and a loser.)

  • Accommodation (Smoothing): One person chooses to go with the other person’s solution. (There’s a winner and a loser.)

  • Avoidance (Withdrawing): One person chooses not to acknowledge the conflict at all. For example, Sarah may draft a memo that two people in the unit can be trained and the other two fired, ignoring the fact that Jimmy wants all four people to be fired. (There’s a winner and a loser.)

  • Compromise (Giving a little, getting a little): Both people give in a little to the other person’s proposed solution. (Each person wins and loses in some way.)

  • Collaboration (Problem solving): Both people get what they want. (There are two winners and no losers.)

As you consider these possible resolutions, keep in mind the following two points:

  • Conflict is not necessarily “bad.” Conflict that focuses on the merits of alternative solutions and maintains respect for the parties involved can result in a solution that’s better than the original choice of either of the participants.

  • Most people understand that they may have to “lose” a conflict every once in a while, and they learn to absorb the blow to their psyche. However, if they lose a disproportionate number of the conflicts in which they choose to participate, they may decide to withdraw from the team and not share their true feelings.

To increase the chances of achieving a successful collaborative resolution on your team, follow these simple steps:

  • Suggest that participants develop sets of criteria for rating solutions instead of just arguing strongly for one solution.

  • Encourage participants to develop additional possible solutions instead of just arguing that their original solution should be selected.

  • Allow sufficient time to explore the different alternatives proposed.

  • Don’t take sides during the discussions. If one person senses that you’re predisposed to the other person’s solution, she’ll think the decision process was unfair and not accept any solution but her own.

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