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How to Resolve Conflicts as a Project Manager

If you are a project manager, you have a lot on your plate to deal with when running a project smoothly from start to finish. You need to delegate work roles, create work goals, report to stakeholders regarding the project's progress, and ensure the project aligns with business objectives and other tasks. While you can plan and prepare for these objectives, you can't always prepare for a workplace conflict between team members. However, it is your job to smooth over any disagreement and to get team members working together to complete projects. Learn how to develop conflict management skills and reach positive resolutions for everyone involved.

What Can Cause Conflict at Work?

Conflicts with team members can come from various sources. They can arise from a worker's personal biases or beliefs. A conflict may also deal with a person's social status or a relationship outside the office. Even a seemingly insignificant experience or interaction can cause friction between coworkers if it causes one person distress.  Tension may build up from these examples, creating conflict between workers. 

Other types of conflicts may be caused by power struggles in the office. A worker may feel discontent over their thoughts and words not being taken seriously by the other team members or experience gaslighting when voicing their opinions. Another worker may feel that their ideas have been stolen by other team members who are getting praised and rewarded by upper management, or they believe that they should be getting certain high-level tasks that are being delegated to other employees. A worst-case scenario is if a conflict leads to a physical altercation. However, conflict does not have to be a verbal disagreement between two or more workers; it can manifest itself through silence or inaction.

A Project Manager's Role

A project manager's role is to keep a project running efficiently and to ensure that all tasks are completed by specified deadlines. Conflicts can interrupt these tasks, as another role of a project manager is to perform conflict resolution. Conflict resolution involves finding out what the problems are between team members and enacting solutions to overcome these disagreements. You bring together the feuding parties and determine the best action to take to smooth over hurt feelings. You can create positive and constructive feedback between everyone and spur open communication so that the conflict is resolved to the point where the project can move forward.

One important thing to remember is that a project manager's role should focus on resolving the issue at hand but not overstep into forming personal relationships between the two workers. You can't force the two warring parties to become best friends overnight or in the future. Instead, you want to come up with solutions so that the team members can collaborate amicably with each other in the workplace environment.

Benefits of Effective Conflict Management Styles

Conflict management styles are the tools that you use to diffuse issues and arguments between project teams. These skills allow you to quickly figure out the root of the problem and open up dialogue to help smooth over negative emotions and actions taken in the workplace. 

The benefits of having effective conflict management styles are that they allow you to resolve problems quickly as they first appear and allow you to spot potential problems and resolve them before they spill over to become bigger issues. Sometimes, a person will not always come to a project manager to address their issue. Instead, their hurt feelings can fester to the point where they become discouraged about their value to the company, as they become upset that the solution isn't solving itself while slowly detaching mentally from their tasks. In time, the person may quietly quit the company. 

Conflict management skills can give you the tools to minimize employee turnover. You may discover an issue that impacts every worker on the project team and is pushing them to their limits. Then you can focus your time and energy on solving the issue to maintain an inclusive environment for everyone.

Essential Conflict Management Skills

You are not expected to know how to handle every conflict intuitively the moment you are hired as a project manager. Instead, you can learn new conflict management skills and hone your existing skills that can help you resolve the majority of issues that appear. These skills can also help you determine when a conflict is outside your area of expertise, as you will need to bring upper management into the resolution talks. Here are several skills that you should adopt into your conflict management style.

Effective Communication

Effective communication should be clear and concise. It should focus on the problem at hand and allow for open dialogue with all the people involved. An effective communicator will touch on every point and also allow for active listening to gain insights from the people who are a part of the conflict. You don't want to get distracted from the basic disagreement by going into personal anecdotes or following other conversational detours that aren’t related to the problem. Developing effective communication skills will allow you to get your point across without any confusion.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to manage your own emotions and understand another person's emotions regarding the conflict. You attempt to see the conflict from their point of view and how they may be feeling through their thought process. By developing emotional intelligence and applying it to your conflict management skills, you can show empathy and communicate in a tone of voice that can help soothe emotions without further provoking them. This method allows you to lower the anger, sadness, and confusion that the team member is feeling so everyone can take a more logical approach to solving the problem.

Problem-Solving

You won't always get the real answer to why there is a conflict between team members. One person will claim a specific issue and the other person may claim something entirely different. Problem-solving skills are designed to help you define the problem, determine the root cause, and figure out meaningful solutions so that everyone is satisfied with the resolution. These skills also can help you come up with alternative solutions if the problem persists.

Negotiation

Negotiation involves bringing both parties to the table to discuss the problem at hand. It is designed to allow all team members to air their issues in a calm and stable environment. You discuss with everyone how to proceed to rectify the issue and what concessions can be made by both parties. Then you implement the agreed upon resolution. A project manager should work as a mediator at the table that has the best interests of everyone, as well as the company involved.

Addressing Conflicts Early

Always address conflicts when first hearing about them, even when the people who are involved in the disagreement have yet to come to you personally to resolve the issue. Always evaluate the workplace environment, listen to how employees talk with one another, and see the actions they take. When you discover the conflict, work to resolve it quickly while the problems are still small.

Creating a Positive and Supportive Environment

If you are having problems resolving issues or you can’t get team members to come to you when they are experiencing a problem, consider the type of working environment that is projected in the office. Sometimes workers may feel like the issue isn't worth bringing up if they see hurried or unapproachable body language from their project manager. Instead, you want to create a positive and supportive environment that encourages team members to seek you out if they have a conflict with either other team members or with the project itself.

Facilitating Mediation and Dialogue

There will be some conflicts where the best solution is to get both workers actively talking with each other to express their opinions. In these situations, you become a mediator whose purpose is to keep the dialogue moving forward in a positive and progressive manner. By taking this approach, the workers may develop their own solutions that will benefit everyone.

Strategies for Successful Conflict Resolution

Encouraging Win-Win Solutions

You aren't expected or obligated to take someone's side in an argument. It is your task as a project manager to come to a peaceful resolution. A part of conflict management is creating strategies where both parties can find win-win solutions. While neither person may get everything they want from the mediation, they can feel satisfied that the solution will minimize future conflicts.

Seeking Third-Party Support

Not every conflict can be solved by the project manager. If there are too many people involved in the conflict, if the project becomes stalled for too long, or if the conflict progressively becomes worse despite all of your efforts, you may have to seek third-party support from other project managers or upper management.

Learning From Conflicts

Every conflict can become a learning opportunity not just for the team members involved but the rest of the workers in the office. Find the positive aspects within the conflict and share these aspects along with your own thoughts with others in meetings and emails. Spreading this knowledge can allow workers to develop their own conflict resolution skills to address possible problems.

Explore Conflict Management Skills with Spelman College

Project managers play an important role in creating positive working environments for their teams. Developing open communication, emotional intelligence, and other conflict resolution skills can allow you to develop solutions that will benefit everyone in the workplace. 

If you are someone who wants to become a project manager or wants to hone their existing conflict resolution style to reach project success, consider obtaining the eSpelman Project Management Certificate. This virtual program is offered through Spelman College and provides you with the learning and skills needed to become an effective project manager. Reach out to us today to learn more.