Professional or personal conflicts can have a negative effect on a project. It is the project management's duty to identify and analyze such conflicts early on, to discuss them and to find solutions together with the collaborators concerned in order to stop an escalation. If the project leader himself or herself is involved or if conflicts have already escalated, outside help may be required.
Cause of conflicts
- Professional disagreements: Factual issues, methods, information
- Conflicts of interests or conflicts of objectives
- Conflicts of roles
- Conflicts to do with the dynamics of the group (power struggles etc.)
- Differences in norms and values
- Cultural conflicts
- Different personalities
Conflicts are nourished by:
- insufficient clarification of factual issues
- insufficient planning
- insufficient resources
- unclear roles and responsibilities
Different forms of conflict
A distinction is made between hot and cold conflicts. A hot conflict is characterized by emotional, verbal, physically aggressive, rancorous and intensive altercations. Such a conflict must be calmed before any resolution can be attempted.
A cold conflict is characterized by a cool or even icily quiet climate between the differing parties whereby eye contact and verbal exchanges are avoided. Emotions are suppressed and are not tangible (anymore); the conflict has solidified. These hidden and solidified emotions must become palpable again in order to deal with a cold conflict.
Stages of conflict according to F. Glasl
- Hardening: standpoints are hotly debated but the persons involved are still committed to try to resolve their differences.
- Debates and polemics: There is polarization, the standpoints attract adherents and discussions escalate into verbal attacks
- Actions: There is a discrepancy between verbal and non-verbal behaviour
- Images and coalitions: Rumours are spread and supporters are actively enlisted
- Loss of face: The opponent 'loses face' publicly, the opponent is isolated
- Strategies of threats: The parties issue mutual threats, stress levels are very high
- Limited destructive blows: The enemy becomes a dehumanized object and even small damage to him/her is seen as a victory
- Fragmentation of the enemy: Vital systems are destroyed, fragmenting of the counterpart.
- Together into the abyss: There is no way back and the annihilation of the enemy comes at the price of the destruction of one's own very existence
The further a conflict has escalated the more difficult becomes its resolution.
Why you would disregard these aspects
- you recognize the conflict too late.
- You are not confident enough to manage a conflict.
- Your need for harmony is too pronounced.
- You do not like to bring taboos out into the open.
- You want to spare your collaborators (and are not aware that in so doing you tend to take away their autonomy).
- You have taken sides with one of the adversaries and have thus become part of the conflict.
- You think you have found the guilty party and that the conflict will be ended if he/she simply changes his/her behaviour.
What you have to gain
The resolution of conflicts is easier if you recognize them early (before they escalate) and if you try to find their cause. The successful resolution of a conflict can energize a team and its sense of corporate identity. Conflicts that are resolved constructively are a source of pride for all involved.
What you can actually do
- Promote a general culture of open discussions.
- Take different opinions and statements seriously.
- If things are not clear, discuss this as early as possible.
- Diagnose the conflict, perhaps with the help of a drawing, and try to answer the following questions:
- Issues of conflict (what are the points of debate?)
- Parties in conflict (who is involved?)
- Relationship between the parties (how do they behave with each other?)
- The dynamics of the conflict (how is the conflict being fought out?)
- The stage of escalation (which stage of escalation on the scale of Glasl has been reached?)
- Basic attitude (what should be reached or avoided?).
- If necessary organize crisis meetings.
- Make notes on how you deal with the conflicts. This can prove useful for the development of the project or for subsequent projects.
- If needed resort to external conflict management or ask for supervision.
- Inform partner organizations as early as possible about conflictual situations.
Questions for critical reflection
- Does the project manager have experience or specific know-how in conflict resolution?
- Are conflicts recognized early, verbalized and handled constructively?
- If needed, is external help made use of ?