How to Manage Stressful Project Conflict

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Project and Program Managers used to be judged by how well they responded to a crisis – now they are judged by how well they anticipate one. In a world with increasing uncertainty lies a dire need to re-frame leadership competencies. There is a need for a resilient and positive mindset in the world of project and program management. Change is even more difficult in this environment where conflict within the organisation is almost inevitable. So the current-day project and program manager challenges often rely on the development and management of the 3C’s:-

  • Anticipation and Reaction to Crisis
  • The Management and Approach to Change
  • The Dealing and Expectation of Conflict

Crisis, change and conflict can happen at any time, in any situation. Even if you think you have all your bases covered, guess again. It can come in all shapes, sizes, degrees and from many angles – from natural disasters, technical problems, internal corporate issues and non-compliance with contract.

They can happen at the drop of a hat and be very devastating to any project and / or program manager if not managed properly. Regardless of the type or size of crisis, change and conflict, it is important to effectively plan and manage for them in the event of one happening and also for during one. This proactive steps (known as risk management) minimises the shock and stress of the situation and effectively shows the true qualities of any project manager. Let’s view this a different way, the project / program managers mindset should be to minimise crises by maximising solutions.

If you agree, why not step back from the project detail by accepting that the plan is the non-essential, it is dealing with the change within it. Moving forward means a positive attitude and acceptance of what lies ahead. Embrace and be-friend the 3’C’s and you will have made a friend for life. To do this try and attempt to make the situation visible and focus on four key questions. This is known as Critical Thinking and the questions to focus on are:

  • Separate the people from the problem
  • Focus on interests, not positions
  • Before trying to reach agreement, invent options for mutual gain
  • Use objective criteria when possible

The key to dealing with these issues is to try ask the question “Why?” and then state a position. Once the position is stated, then attempt to think of “How”? and this is essentially the response. What I have described here is the ad-hoc way of dealing with conflict. The more proactive and established method is a good risk management process.

One of the fundamental steps in trying to manage conflict, crisis or change is risk management. We try to manage risk through a proactive series of methods. Depending on the type of project you’re involved with you could have several different risk management models to consider as the project manager. However, the over-riding issue regarding any risk management model that you undertake is are you prepared to make the decision whether to accept or reject the risk and then accept responsibility for your decision. This is a risk model that is accepting the culture of the business but also a risk model that can alert to risk and minimises the conflict and crisis that can ensure from the adverse effect of unplanned situation.

To display a proactive attitude to risk there are five main factors as displayed by the accompanying diagram. 

  1. Culture: – Take the risk culture into account – what can be tolerated and not. Understand the key roles within the project / programs – who are champions, where is the support coming from?
  2. Risk Transparency: – Establish a common vocabulary. Understand the ‘stress points’ and what are you measuring against. Use business specific scenarios to build simple risk models that we all understand
  3. Ownership and Appetite: – Look for the level of risk appetite within projects and programs. Examine the risk capacity for customer facing versus internal facing projects. Understand the level of ownership available and how this can dictate the risk strategy
  4. Risk Process / Decisions: – Use of consistent risk management process to identify and respond. Use risk information as a basis for decision making. Use escalation model to communicate / manage risk
  5. Risk Governance: – Understand the management responsibilities of risk across the program / organisation. Establish an Enterprise Risk Management Solution.

The question that may well be going through your head right now is – OK, so how do I create a risk management model? Well, hopefully you’ll find the following ideas and suggestions will at least get you started on that task. Risk management modelling is simply one of the tasks you need to do at the planning stage, considering what are likely to be the major problems in the project and then what can you do to reduce them.

Can risk management be the solution to minimising the stressful of conflict. If done properly, the answer is YES. However, the solution is not the risk itself but how it is presented into the culture of your organisation.

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