Turning Enemies into Allies — Conflict Management

conflict managementConflict management is at the heart of the job description of any project manager. Turning your enemies into allies takes this important practice a step further, which I think is a skill that everyone should have and be able to practice, especially when your team is small. When deadlines are approaching or your project budget seems to be running out, tensions get high. Trying to maintain the singular focus and productivity of your team is an uphill battle when everyone gets along, but when people get their nose out of joint, it is near to impossible.

I think this is a great conversation to have with anyone and everyone in your business. If you are a small business owner, you absolutely need to be skilled at a framework that will help you get past a conflict you are having with someone or a group of people and find a solution that will work. I find that particularly when there may be a change in the scope or requirements of a project, there may be conflict on how to meet the modified expectations. When working with high-performance individuals on a team, disagreements will happen and when people feel passionate about their solution, serious disagreements can happen.

One of the better books I have read on this topic is Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler. I have to admit I read the book because my brother was working for them at the time and he suggested I pick it up and try to become a better communicator because of it. The methodology and framework they present is very effective and I have found works in case where both parties really want to find a solution for their conflict. When one party does not want to find a solution, there are other strategies that you can use. It doesn’t matter what type of project management methodology you utilize — Scrum, Waterfall, or even CCPM — because these tools can work for you.

All I can do is introduce you to the tools here. If you really want to learn how to use them effectively, I suggest you read the book (you can purchase it on Amazon here). They really take some effort to put them into practice. But as you begin to master the process, you will find very few instances where you can’t find a mutually beneficial solution to a disagreement you are facing with someone. This framework is best used when the conversation may have already heated up and blood pressure has elevated. Here are the steps:

  1. Apologize — You need to step up and have the guts to apologize when you have made a mistake that has negatively impacted others. One of the worst ways to apologize in my book is, “I am sorry if what I did hurt your feelings”. That sounds like it was manufactured by a PR agency. You gotta mean it. Your apology should sound like, “I am sorry. What I did was not appropriate and I can understand why your feelings were hurt.” See the difference? In the second scenario you actually apologized and you recognized that you stepped all over their feelings. People will respond better. You have to abandon your need to be right or winning. As a ENTJ, this is not the easiest step for me, but I am a grown-up and understand the need to subvert my own needs for the greater good.
  2. Contrast — Here you need to use a “don’t” and then a “do” statement. In the first statement you need to express the concerns of the other person and clearly state that your intention is not to fight or disagree with them but your intention is to find a solution that works for everyone. You should also clearly state what your concern with following their suggestion is so they understand where your head is. For example, in one case where I used this framework with a member of an implementation team less than a year ago, the team member wanted to use a different curriculum that what had already been decided on. She had started a couple of behaviors that were not appropriate in the team setting, seeking to delay the curriculum adoption so another choice would be reconsidered. Once I uncovered her concern, my statement here was, “I don’t want to make you out to be a bad team member. I understand your concerns and why you would like to revisit this decision. My concern is that we are very late in the process and going back to the step of curriculum assessment will delay the implementation and make us miss our deadlines. So let’s talk this through.”
  3. CRIB — This is an acronym that stands for 1. Commit to seek mutual purpose, 2. Recognize the purpose behind this strategy, 3. Invent a mutual purpose, and 4. Brainstorm new strategies. Here are some quick tips for the elements of this step:
    1. Commit to seek mutual purpose — You both should agree to arriving at a solution that is mutually acceptable. In the example I gave, the team and the dissenting team member agreed that it was in the best interest of the project in finding a solution quickly and efficiently. We also agreed that while not all team members were required to agree on the solution, we would need to all get behind the solution that was selected by the team and not badmouth the choice.
    2. Recognize the purpose behind the strategy — You need to make sure you keep what is being debated separate from the actual strategy. While you may disagree on what you are debating, everyone needs to stick to the strategy in order for it to work. Try and get everyone to take the emotion out of the debate and focus on the facts.
    3. Invent a mutual purpose — In our case, the purpose of our discussion was to adopt the curriculum that would best meet the needs of the students and teachers. We had developed a framework that guided our original decision, which had produced the decision the team had made and was now being questioned by the dissenter. The curriculum that was being championed by the dissenter was not included as part of the original analysis because it was not sent to us by the publisher. So, we agreed to evaluate the new curriculum using the original assessment protocol and compare it to the curriculum that had been selected. The entire team agreed to that course of action and we moved forward.
    4. Brainstorm the new strategies — As a group and without emotion, you should come up with solutions that will meet the needs of your project. In our case it was pretty cut and dry — we had two solutions to select from. Because the assessment process was fast-tracked, it only put us behind by one week. We made that time up later in the project. As a group we came to the decision to use the curriculum that was originally selected. Through the objective selection criteria we determined it would better enable us to meet the needs of students and teachers and would provide a higher probability of meeting the performance objectives we had set during the planning process.

The benefit of actually sitting down and going through this process was that everyone on the team felt we had exhausted all options and everyone had been heard. While it was not necessary to reach a unanimous vote to move forward, in the end everyone supported the consensus decision and nobody felt like they had been ignored. If we would have moved forward without confronting this issue, the dissenting member of our team would have been firmly against our selected course of action. From that point forward they would have not supported the project and I believe would have done what they could within the district administration to thwart the forward progress of the project.

Read this book. Get to know the methods it presents. Getting to the point that you can work through issues as a team without creating animosity is one of the keys to being successful in business, regardless of your profession.

Related Topics:
Daily Stand-Up Meeting Tips
Strategies for Killer Project Management
Agile Project Management Overview


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I am the author of this site, and what I say goes. I love talking about the benefits of formalized and professional project management and getting stuff done.