Understanding Conflict Styles to Assess a Situation
Project managers inevitably face conflict. When team members have different ideas and approaches, conflict typically arises. Knowing when to confront a team member instead of avoiding the conflict involves learning how to accurately assess a situation. Dealing with a conflict effectively allows you to grow personally and professionally. When people acknowledge conflict exists, they become more aware of other perspectives. Recognizing there are different styles of dealing with conflict and when to use each style helps improve productivity. Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann developed the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument that defines five different styles.
- When you use a competitive style, you use your rank, level or experience to persuade another person to see things your way. Confronting an opponent using this style makes sense when there is an emergency and you are extremely confident your approach is the right one. Using this style consistently tends to discourage employees so use it sparingly in situations that don’t represent a crisis.
- Using a collaborative style, you try to ensure everyone in the conflict has a say. Successful leaders recognize that gathering input from subordinates contributes to effective decision-making. You may need to confront a team member who prevents other team members from expressing their opinion.
- When using a compromising style, you attempt to find a solution to the conflict that meets all needs. This typically avoids a confrontation since everyone has to give up a little in order to reach a solution that everyone can live with in order to work more effectively and achieve the project goals. Use this style when team members can’t make a decision and the work can’t move forward unless each party gives in a bit.
- To meet the needs of team members at your own expense, you sometimes need to give in and accommodate the wishes of others. This also avoids a confrontation but allows work to move forward. When the issue is not that important in the greater scheme of things, this strategy is useful. A negative confrontation that destroys the harmony built after many months of team building prevents the team from working productively. However, using this style consistently instead of confronting overbearing team members can result in long-term ill effects, so accommodate others only when it serves a useful purpose.
- Avoiding conflicts and confrontations by ignoring problems, delegating or delaying controversial decisions and accepting the current situation can be appropriate if there is no other viable alternative or conflict resolution is beyond the scope of the team’s sphere of influence. Avoidance tends to be a poor strategy for solving problems on project teams. Confronting the problem head on usually results in long-term success.
Confrontation Process to Choose
When team members recognize that problems can solved if each party responds calmly, constructively and rationally, productivity results. Personal attacks should never be sanctioned by management. By using active listening techniques, such as paraphrasing and repeating what the other person has said, people involved in a confrontation can solve a problem more effectively. To begin, both parties need to agree that a problem exists and agree to resolve it. They need to list the facts, explore alternatives, examine the impact and bring in a third party to mediate the discussion if necessary. Confronting a team member about decision, strategy or mistake can be a difficult task but by focusing on the goal of achieving a positive outcome, you can prevent long-term antagonism.
The conflict resolution process typically starts by the participants discussing the problem openly. By summarizing the situation up front, both parties can begin to analyze what went wrong and how to fix it. Confronting and accusing your opponent at this point is counterproductive because you may not really know what you’re fighting about. Instead, gather information to learn about the other person’s perspective and views on the situation. Be respectful and professional. You need each other’s cooperation and commitment to solve the problem so the project team can function more effectively. When conflict disrupts work, it impacts the team’s ability to meet the customer’s requirements, deadlines and goals. Once both parties agree the problem exists and needs to be resolved, you can consider the options for solving it.
This is the time to confront the other person about grievances, such as poor performance or specific actions. Then, you can brainstorm a solution and negotiate a compromise if necessary. Confronting another person doesn’t mean personally attacking or physically abusing the team member. It means being assertive and declaring your position to get it out in the open. In return, you must patiently, respectfully and calmly listen to his response.
Minimizing the Negative Impact on Others
Team building exercises can help diverse project team members learn how to complete individual tasks without undermining the work of other co-workers. This results in higher levels of productivity. Conflict can actually enable a team to become more focused and dedicated. Team members need to acknowledge when the team dynamic falters, productivity tends to suffer. Personal conflicts and disputes distract everyone from achieving the project goals. Gossip and rumors spiral into long-term problems. Team members who don't value diversity and respect other workers ethnic backgrounds and cultural traditions disrupt productivity for everyone. Learning to resolve conflict constructively by confronting each other when appropriate helps teams work together to achieve strategic goals.
- Deutsch, Morton, and Peter T. Coleman. The handbook of conflict resolution theory and practice. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass, 2000.
- Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons – Asachs / Public Domain License