Earlier this spring, I was presenting a brief overview of project management to a group of chemical and electrical engineers. The seminar was about one hour and so we barely had time to scratch the surface of this topic. We covered the differences between projects and routine operations, basic project management groups, and project boundaries (scope, schedule, and cost). I concluded with a couple of slides on leadership and teamwork.
Not surprisingly, most of the questions from the audience were in regard to leadership and teams. In particular, several participants brought forward situations dealing with conflict. Many of the engineers had 20+ years of experience yet were supervised by managers with little industry experience (e.g. less than five years out of college). These individuals faced both technical conflicts to accomplish their work and they also faced challenges in mentoring new leaders.
We have addressed the topic of conflict management at the Idea Incubator (free registration) previously. However, in light of the strong interest to better manage conflict from this large group of engineers and practitioners, it seems appropriate to revisit conflict management techniques.
Methods for Conflict Management
The Thomas-Kilman model of conflict management is perhaps the most common theory to apply in all cases (technical or interpersonal) of conflict. The model emphasizes a person’s response to conflict based on the degree of cooperation and degree of assertiveness. Cooperation can be interpreted also as “concern for others” while assertiveness can also mean “concern for self”. Note that there is no single “right” behavior to deal with conflicts. Instead, like most leadership theories, it is best to understand how we normally respond to conflict and to understand that others’ responses may be varied. Adapting our conflict management styles to the individual situation is a healthy behavior for project leaders faced with disagreements among the team members.
The accommodating style of conflict management represents a high degree of cooperation coupled with a low concern for self. A person using an accommodating style of conflict resolution may be viewed as nonassertive and malleable. However, this style is useful when it is more important to preserve the relationship than to “win” the argument
Other situations in which accommodating is a useful conflict management technique are those in which the other party holds more influence or power than you do. In other circumstances, your needs are rationally lesser than the other party’s, so the accommodating style can be effective.
Avoiding is another conflict resolution technique with a low degree of assertiveness. Unlike accommodating, however, avoiding is also low in cooperation. Sometimes called “withdrawing,” avoiding is a conflict management method that is effective for a project leader when s/he is not directly involved in the issue at hand.
While a person employing an avoiding technique in conflict management may be considered weak and unassertive, this method allows the problem to be addressed by those with a vested interest in the situation. Often there are two, equally viable technical solutions to a problem. The project leader can “avoid” the conflict by withdrawing and allowing the situation to be resolved by others. In this case, the project manager accepts that it is not his or her problem and chooses not to worry about it.
In the Thomas-Kilman model, competing is viewed as a conflict management style with a high degree of concern for oneself and little concern for others. A person using this method of conflict resolution will often be viewed as assertive, or even aggressive. However, at the same time, team members may perceive a competing style as uncooperative. A person employing competing style of conflict management may be viewed as pursuing his or her goals at the expense of others.
Other terms for the competing style include “direct” and “forcing.” This method of conflict resolution is best deployed when you absolutely, without a shadow of doubt, know that you are right. It is also effective when rules or policies must be enforced and in times of crisis. A project leader may be forced to choose between alternatives during an emergency situation and a direct decision, without widespread debate or discussion, is the most expedient one to address the crisis.
Noted as intermediate on the scale of concern for others, compromising indicates a need for everyone to get along. However, with only a moderate degree of concern for self, compromising is often considered as a “lose-lose” response to conflict since no one gets much of what they wanted. Unfortunately, many of us believe that “meeting in the middle” is an effective resolution to conflict, yet getting team buy-in can be especially difficult in a compromised solution.
However, compromise can be effective in conflicts where there is a stalemate or it is the socially accepted method of problem-solving. For instance, most Americans buying a car will expect to compromise between an offered price ($20,000) and the asking price ($25,000). In this case, then, both parties will be satisfied by “meeting in the middle” at a sales price of $22,500.
Some project management experts believe that the only true solution to conflict is collaborating. This method is also known as “problem-solving”. In collaborating, a person demonstrates a high degree of assertiveness at the same time as showing a high level of concern for others. Characteristic behaviors of a problem-solving leader are assertive and cooperative with respect for all opinions.
Collaborating is best utilized in conflicts that have significant impact on the future. This method of conflict resolution allows time to investigate a wide variety of opinions, data, and information. Each party is provided an adequate opportunity to voice his or her view.
A drawback of collaborative conflict management is that it can be very time-consuming. The problem must be framed appropriately and concisely in order to focus the discussion with clarity on the disagreement at hand. Alternative solutions must be described in depth and evaluated for potential merit. Finally, many project leaders will utilize democratic processes, such as voting, to ensure support and team buy-in for the ultimate solution that is to be implemented.
Conflict Management Techniques
Conflict arises for a variety of reasons in all projects. Not all conflict is bad since identifying alternatives can lead to creative and novel solutions.
There are five typical conflict management responses according to the Thomas-Kilman model. Accommodating and avoiding are characterized by a low degree of assertiveness, while competing and collaborating show a high concern for self in the discussion and in the ultimate solution. In contrast, the competing and avoiding styles of conflict resolution show little concern for others, while accommodating and collaborating represent high levels of cooperation in reaching a satisfactory outcome to the conflict. An intermediate stage, compromising, may lead to a “meet in the middle” solution, but will have little support or buy-in from the project team.
Conflict management and leadership are important topics in project management and innovation. To learn more about managing projects and new product development teams, please contact Global NP Solutions at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 281-280-8717. Conflict management is just one of the many topics covered in detail in the new product development professional (NPDP) training. Please join us for an NPDP workshop addressing best practices for successful innovation. NPDP workshops are held monthly through guided webinars or at your own pace in a cost-effective self-study format.
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