We are sitting in a cafe near the office. Corwin is silent all the time since I dragged him for a break. His coffee is getting cold, but he never touched it.
“OK, buddy, what’s on your mind? You are so far away from here.” I tried to break the ice.
Corwin sipped coffee at last and started to get back to the cafe from his heavy thoughts. He signed and shrugged a bit like giving up. “This conflict is killing me. It’s dragging for four weeks. And it seems like it is just getting started.”
Corwin managed his team for more than a year already. There were no problems at all. He finished many small projects successfully.
Several months ago the project contract was extended. His team grew up quite large. And he got under the radar of technical officers.
We drank coffee and ate complimentary cookies for a minute in silence. I felt that Corwin is willing and ready to share his worries. But I did not want to push.
“My team leader clashed with that technical officer. Peter is his name. You worked with him I believe.” Corwin sat back in his chair.
“Yes, I remember the guy. He is harsh a bit.”
“They are fighting on some technical aspect of a project. It looks so subtle to me.” Corwin rubbed his tired eyes. “Yet they both describe it as a disaster of an industrial magnitude. And now it’s getting really personal.”
“Yeah, unresolved conflicts become personal. Though they rarely start like that.”
He smiled with a face that meant I nailed the point.
Conflict Resolution Techniques
“So, what would you do in my place?”
“Let’s review your options here.” I took a notebook and put numbers from five to one. From the worst to the best conflict resolution techniques.
5. Forcing One Side at the Expense of the Another
“What is the worst approach that you can take right now?” I asked and prepared to note down Corwin’s answer.
Without thinking, he said, “For sure, I can force my team leader to follow Peter’s requirements. There is no way I can force Peter to agree with our point of view. His authority and reputation are at stake already.”
“That is true,” I said writing down option number five. “That will kill your relationships with Kevin. Is that his name? Your team leader I mean.”
“Yes, it’s him. What’s next?”
4. Smoothing the Conflict With Emphasise on Agreements
“We are in the same boat kind of approach,” I suggested smiling. We both knew, it never works with the kind of people we work.
“You know it doesn’t work. Both of them believe they are making the project better. I can see that. But that is not the point. They want to prove that their solution is better.”
“Better for whom?” I asked, getting to the real meat of conflict resolution in project management.
“That’s the problem they are challenging each other. But I doubt it is for the good of the customer.”
“Conflict resolution should serve the interests of a customer”
“So, we both agree then,” Corwin summarised. “It is not an option.”
3. Withdrawal of the Conflicting Parties
“Have you tried to separate them for a bit?”
“Sure,” Corwin smiled sadly. “That’s what I did in the first place after they started yelling. I thought it was a temporary exasperation. So, I forced all communications between them to go through me. I thought I would mediate the conflict this way.”
“It didn’t work?”
“It was a total failure,” another sad smile. ”I tried to avoid the conflict. But it is not something a good project manager does. Right?”
“You are right. It looks like you cool down the hot heads and buy some time to work it out. But in fact, you are postponing the conflict. Is it where it grew personal and emotional?”
Corwin collected milky cappuccino foam from the bottom of his cup. Signed and said, “That was a bad move, wasn’t it? OK, what’s next? By the way, how do you know it’s only five options there?”
2. Compromising with Both Parties
I wrote down point number four and a word “Compromise” as a hint.
Corwin grasped the idea quickly, “So, you are suggesting to find a solution that will satisfy both of them?”
“I’m not suggesting it because I already know the answer.”
“Solutions are mutually exclusive,” my friend noticed. “The only way to please them both is to let them try both approaches. But who would approve that? It also puts us in a bad light in front of the clients.”
“Yes, it questions our expertise,” I switched to the last and the best conflict resolution technique.
1. Collaborating to Find the Best Solution
We both sat staring into the distance thinking how collaboration may look like in this case.
“How about a panel discussion?” I suggested.
“Oh, panel discussion,” Corwin said amused. “You suggest getting other technical experts at the table. Let them all openly discuss pros and cons of both approaches.”
“Yes, moreover, we need someone whom they both respect and see as authority,” I continued. “But these experts should not be biased.”
“Someone from another department, then.”
“That might work,” Corwin cheered up a bit. “So, either Peter or Kevin may sway under the influence and authority of those experts.”
“And it won’t look like a failure. You can just support a valid point of view of another person. Doesn’t feel like backing away.”
When Conflict Resolution Techniques Doesn’t work
Several days later we had lunch together.
“How did it go?” I asked getting back to the collaboration solution.
“It did not work,” Corwin chirped. “It seemed like we had a great open discussion. I thought Peter even agreed that there are good pros in our solution. They even shook hands. But the next day, it all started again.”
I smiled back, “So, you fixed Peter’s problem. But it is not a root cause of it, isn’t it?”
“Now I can see, that it’s not a “technical” problem at all.” Corwin was happy that a personal part of the conflict was resolved. “My project grew up rapidly. I think it is time to look for the new influential stakeholders. Someone’s trying to take a bit of control of our work.”
“What you are going to do with Peter?”
Corwin thought for a moment, “No matter how good we are, these techniques do not always work. But I still need to get things done and keep up with our commitments to the client. I’ll isolate Peter as much as I can and give some breathing space for the team to finish the work. We wasted too much time and efforts on it already.”
“Sounds like a plan!”
This case did not resolve reasonably well. The conflict lasted for several months after that. Despite all the efforts and approaches Corwin used, nothing worked.
The thing is:
You cannot always please them all. Not all conflicts will work out into a collaborative consensus. Sometimes you have to choose a lesser evil.
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