Project managers must deal with conflict. It’s part of the job. No, strike that. Conflict is part of life. When you went out to get the morning paper, you encounter the neighbor who complains that your dog pooped on his lawn – again. The woman who stepped out of line at Starbuck’s to grab a bottle of water and loudly berates your audacity for putting your coffee order in before hers. Your sister calls to remind you (in that special tone of voice) that she needs to be reimbursed for all the work she’s done to fix mom’s house. An aggressive driver cuts you off – and it’s a good thing you were on Bluetooth while listening to your sister. And that was all just before you got to work!
Conflict is part of everyone’s daily life and we all develop ways to deal with conflict. Some people seem to seek out and relish conflict. Many others take all steps to avoid it. Ultimately, how we deal with conflict is learned and adaptive behavior. Conflict resolution is something we first watch and model within our own families. Later, we bloody our noses with this foundation on the playground, refine it in high school, polish it in college and conquer the world with it upon graduation. Actually, at that point, the majority of us have the basic building blocks we need to effectively deal with conflict. At that point, most of us really need work on dealing with conflicts in the business world. As a project manager, dealing with conflict is part of business. Whether you like it or not, project managers need the skill to know how to recognize it and properly handle it in a business environment.
Conflict has a bad connotation. Some people tense at even the thought of conflict. Our learned and adapted behaviors can devolve into negative experiences. We sort confrontations into memories of winners and losers; victors and vanquished; haves and have nots. In a business environment, how one deals with conflict will color their perception of success. You need to know your natural tendencies in order to handle conflict because project managers serve as the lightning rod for all that is good and bad in the project.
Know Your Self
In any interaction with other human beings, you must remember the only thing you can control is your own reactions. This is especially true with emotional situations like conflict. Let me provide an illustration. For six years, I was a volunteer fireman and Paramedic (EMT-P). One of the first things I learned as a medic was to know and understand what made me hesitate and understand that weakness. Because I had very young children at home during that time, I knew I did not want to be the lead medic in any infant, toddler emergency. Give me any medical, traffic, chainsaw or burn emergency, just not one involving a young child because I saw my own kids face in the child’s. I did learn how to control my initial, or ‘natural’ reaction during pediatric emergencies and was always able to provide the best care during a run. I have since found it was an important lesson that I’ve carried over to all aspects of my life and continue today. Especially in my role as a project manager. I don’t like conflict (I am pretty sure it is a product of being a middle child… LOL) but I’ve learned how to effectively deal with it in the business world… most days.
What is Conflict?
Before we can start to resolve conflict, it is a good to understand it. I found the following list of conflict characteristics in a book I read a few years ago. I don’t have it handy, but there is an unstated attribution for this:
The Nature of Conflict
- Conflict is natural, neither positive or negative, it just is.
- Conflict is just an interference pattern of energy.
- Nature uses conflict as its primary motivator for change, creating beautiful beaches, canyons, mountains and pearls.
- It’s not whether you have conflict in your life, it’s what you do with that conflict that makes a difference.
- Conflict is not a contest.
- Winning and losing are goals for games, not for conflicts.
- Learning, growing, and cooperating are goals for resolving conflicts.
- Resolving conflict is rarely about who is right, it is about acknowledgment and appreciation of differences.
Over the next several blog entries, I will be exploring the topic of conflict and conflict resolution, starting first with the basis of conflict. Hopefully you will find at least one thing to help you in your day-to-day job.