Become a successful project leader by learning how to manage internal conflicts, ensuring your work stays on track and hits essential KPIs.
Freshminds carries out a large number of projects every year, putting together and briefing teams to fulfil client requests. Our project teams range from researchers to analysts to transformation specialists, so we understand the challenge of conflict.
While healthy conflict is often creative and arguably a vital ingredient for team success, destructive conflict can be devastating for individual well-being, team morale, productivity and project outcomes. It can lead to resignation, long-term absence and presenteeism.
A 2021 report by ACAS using CIPD survey data estimated that close to 10 million people in the UK experience conflict at work each year, at a total cost to employers of £28.5 bn.
In this article, we’ll discuss options for addressing destructive conflict, along with strategies to prevent it (while encouraging the creative kind!).
If you’re looking for further guidance on project capabilities such as people management, organisational change, and strategy, speak with a specialist from the Freshminds network.
Address the conflict
Choose your approach
1. Address destructive conflict.
Conflict within a project team can be trickier than customer or client conflict. It's closer to home, more likely to be personal and when deadlines are tight, or a client is breathing down your neck, often more tempting to ignore.
But as a leader, ignoring conflict is generally a very bad idea! While addressing conflict might feel uncomfortable or take up time, in the long run, it will likely turn out to be time extremely well spent. Additionally, it's important to recognise that conflicts occur as a natural effect of a diverse team. Instead, it's more beneficial to recognise types of conflicts rather than trying to avoid workplace conflicts altogether.
Diagnosing the root cause & assessing the bigger picture
Example: someone in your team is consistently missing deadlines. Their colleagues are frustrated; they see it as poor performance and have complained. Upon investigation, it becomes clear that deadlines are unrealistic and need restructuring. Once this is addressed by the project managers, the project flows smoothly and is eventually delivered on time.
Example: deadlines are being missed. It’s been mooted that this is because they’re unrealistic. After closer inspection, it transpires that there’s a total lack of respect between two key team members, who are essentially sabotaging one another’s workstreams and delaying progress. Following several failed conflict resolution attempts, one of the parties is reassigned to a workstream in a different part of the business.
As in the examples above, the root cause of a conflict is not always immediately obvious, and when you’re working out the best way to handle it, it’s useful to start by answering a few key questions:
What are the facts?
How do you know about the conflict - did someone approach you, or did you notice it yourself? How is it affecting the team and progress right now? Speak to the parties involved and try to get to the bottom of what’s going on.
Is it interpersonal or task-based conflict?
Task conflict might arise from differing approaches to, say, problem-solving, product design, working styles, and issues with project structure. Handled well, task conflict can actually be very productive.
Interpersonal conflict i.e. friction resulting from personality clashes, different communication styles, bullying, or harassment, is typically more difficult to deal with than task conflict and is likely to require considerably more from your EI skills.
What’s the goal of addressing the conflict?
The goal of conflict resolution will always be both project and personal assurance. For instance, it allows a project to move forwards productively, ensuring a business achieves its aims. In a personal sense, it also involves employee wellbeing.
However, achieving a consensual resolution isn’t always simple. And it’s worth thinking about the full process below.
Reflection: think about two scenarios where you’ve had to deal with conflict - one that went really well and one that went less well.
What was the root cause? Was it the same as it initially appeared? Was it interpersonal or task-based?
How was the conflict impacting the team at the point it was noticed?
What did you do to address the conflict? What do you think would have happened if you’d ignored it?
What was the outcome?
What worked about your approach? What didn’t? If you were in the same situation again, would you change your resolution strategy?
2. Choose your approach.
Once you’ve established the cause of the conflict, understood the impact it’s having, and identified the end goal of addressing it, you’re in a position to decide how to manage it. It's all about problem solving.
In a widely referenced model, Thomas Killmann identifies 5 basic approaches to handling conflict:
Competing: assertive, uncooperative - seeking to win and be ‘right’
Accommodating: unassertive, cooperative - often results in resolution at one’s own expense
Avoiding: does not deal with the conflict - diplomatically sidestepping
Collaborating: assertive and cooperative - willingness to explore the conflict, understand, learn and work in partnership towards a solution
Compromising: seeking a solution that is acceptable to both parties - there is likely to be some concession on both sides (may not fully satisfy either)
Given the goal you’ve identified and the personalities involved, which of the above approaches feels the most useful?
You might normally seek to avoid conflict, but the current context means it’s necessary to pull rank and impose a solution. Or maybe it’s vital to reach a compromise. Perhaps avoiding the conflict is actually the best thing to do - maybe it’s trivial and likely to blow over in time.
Who needs to be involved, and how will they?
It’s important to think about who needs to be involved in managing the resolution and what form this might take. For instance, there might be numerous employees involved and organising a workshop or addressing it in a generalist work update within the office could be useful. However, fewer people might have been impacted but more intensely. In this instance, perhaps it’s best to leave the office environment and chat casually at a coffee shop or other public space.
Do you need to escalate?
Don’t forget that its resolution is not solely up to you. You’re part of a larger organisation that is there to offer support. Perhaps it’s useful to discuss the situation with someone who can help you think through your approach and role-play difficult conversations. If so, pick someone appropriate - your coach, for example, or someone more senior - and take care to maintain confidentiality.
Sometimes it’s not appropriate to deal with a conflict yourself at all. Or you might need to involve someone more senior or an HR manager. If the conflict directly involves you, you might look for a mediator to step in.
3. Take action.
Whatever you decide is the appropriate course of action, strong communication will be vital. You can:
Listen well: stay calm and open, and encourage honesty. Take notes (and explain why). Don’t interrupt unless you want to clarify. Ask someone what they think their options are and their opinion on the best solution for moving forwards. Avoid offering judgement or solutions immediately - take time to process what you’ve heard.
Acknowledge feelings: this isn’t about agreeing or taking sides; it’s about making it clear that you have listened to and heard someone. It’s showing that you understand and accept that this situation - however you might view it - is making them feel however they feel.
Be transparent, clear and respect confidentiality: it’s important that you communicate clearly about the steps that need to be taken, that you document them, and that you follow through on what you say you’re going to do. Don’t talk about the situation with other people in the team - if you need to soundboard, do it with someone more senior.
Be impartial: if you’re mediating a discussion, set out the aims clearly. Ground rules help - i.e. using depersonalised language - ‘yes and’ and ‘I’ statements (‘I think / I feel / I need’) rather than ‘you did xyz…’ If someone feels attacked or blamed, they’ll likely become defensive and stop being able to listen.
Final thoughts on how to manage conflict
Much of learning how to handle conflict is learning about people.
Sometimes conflict will take time to resolve, particularly if behaviour change is involved, so prepare to be patient. Sometimes resolution is impossible, and you may need to accept this. It’s important to know when to cut your losses and reallocate tasks, resources, and adapt structures.
And sometimes, conflict can be a major opportunity:
“Conflict that asks questions and challenges prevailing ways of doing things does give us the opportunity to create fairer and more inclusive workplaces in the future”. - ACAS: Estimating the costs of workplace conflict
At Freshminds, we have first-hand experience on how to run a successful project, as well as understanding the importance of EI in senior team players. What to chat about talent acquisition for your projects? Get in touch.