Methods of Conflict Resolution

Mediation is an attempt to find a peaceful settlement to resolve a dispute between individuals. The process uses a neutral party to mediate. As a project manager, that often becomes your job.

Mediation

The underlying principle of mediation lies in the genuine willingness of all disputing parties to participate. As project manager, if the dispute is between team members and does not involve you, then you can act as intermediary (unless there is a clearly defined perception that you are aligned with one of the parties in the dispute). Depending on the nature of the dispute, mediation can present a short-term cure by bringing the project-related arguments from both sides to the forefront and trying to find a middle ground or compromise settlement.

If, however, the conflict stems from underlying, non-project-related issues, ranging from personal feelings to previous conflicts, the idea of finding a compromise and creating a true win-win situation is less likely. The best you can hope for is to find a temporary short-term solution through which everyone can work.

If you are in the position of mediator, you need to hear both sides' arguments. Hopefully, you can find a middle ground that allows each side to walk away satisfied with the outcome. If the situation is a clear-cut, win-lose argument, such as whether to use program A or B, you need to make a clear decision and explain that it is based solely on the factors involved and not the individuals.

What is mediation?

Mediation is a method of resolving conflict in which a neutral third party intervenes to try to settle a dispute between two parties.

Conflict Transformation

A more complicated process called conflict transformation uses mediation, but focuses on the attitudes and perceptions of the parties and looks to alter these perceptions. On small-scale or short-term projects, the time frame won't allow this level of resolution to make radical changes in personalities. Long-term, large-scale projects with significant impact on a wide-spread population may require loftier resolution techniques in which the parties are encouraged to look beyond the project to their feelings and attitudes.

Conflict transformation is concerned primarily with changing the attitudes and perceptions the parties have about one another. In the long term, this can be very beneficial, as changed attitudes can result in less conflict moving forward. Television programs designed to teach youngsters how to properly accept and understand other people use the same techniques. Moralistic in nature, they work with adults too, but success is often harder to achieve since attitudes are more firmly embedded within adults.

To achieve such transformation, you may need the help of outside professionals to get to the root of the conflict. Compromise is a key factor in conflict resolution. Once again, as in any mediation, both parties need to be amenable. Parties will need to sit down and negotiate a settlement that is satisfactory to both sides. In a situation that doesn't present a clear-cut decision, a compromise is often the result of mediation.

Compromise

When both sides have something tangible to bring to the table, compromise can be the fastest and easiest way to resolve difference. For example, if the dispute is over which person will do a specific task the tangible factor is the task, and it can be divided so that both parties will do various aspects of the task. A simple dispute over where to hold a retirement party could end with a third choice that has some of the best aspects of the two previous choices.

If various elements are involved, each party can gain something important to them while conceding something that isn't. Perhaps one individual wants up-tempo music with dancing for the company holiday party while another wants a more reserved, quiet, no-dancing atmosphere. The compromise could be a quiet dinner and a more up-tempo, dance-oriented atmosphere after the meal.

Even disputes between management and team members can offer an opportunity to compromise, show good faith on both sides, and bring different views together. Sometimes scheduling is at the root of the dispute, and the schedule simply needs to be tweaked to meet the needs of both sides. When negotiating a compromise settlement, it is important to have a priority list from each side in advance to know which issues are more important and which can be sacrificed. Then it's a matter of trading off issues.

Compromise, however, won't work if someone is just plain angry that he or she is doing more work than someone else or not being included in the decision-making process. Personal grudges and disenchantment lead to conflict of a less logical method that can't always be solved using tradable tangibles.

Shift Perspectives

Putting things into perspective is a most interesting method of conflict resolution. If, for example, Fred is furious that Maryanne is not pulling her weight on the project, you need to put the situation into perspective for that individual. You can talk to Maryanne and evaluate why she does not appear to be working as hard as Fred. If she is slacking off or just not trying, then Fred may have alerted you to a potential problem.

However, maybe Maryanne is working just as hard as Fred; he may simply not be aware of what she is accomplishing, or perhaps she is slower than he is at producing results. Either way, you need to remind Fred that he is a fast worker and not everyone can maintain his pace. Put into perspective that people work at different speeds, and that as long as they are trying to fulfill their roles as best they can, that's all one can and should expect.

Before approaching Maryanne, you need to assess whether Fred has a valid claim. Maryanne may be doing an excellent job, but because they dated socially and it did not work out, Fred may have approached you for the wrong reasons. This goes back to conflict transformation, in which you need to address the root of the conflict between individuals, which is not always what it appears.

The fact that he has ill feelings toward her and needs to address and work through them is an underlying issue — perhaps they were simply not suitable on a social level. Putting that into perspective and moving forward will help change Fred's attitude toward Maryanne's work habits and end potential conflict. For your purposes, you need to find a manner in which they can work together and show each other respect.

Put things into perspective for team members who may be arguing or complaining over issues that, in the grand scheme of things, are unimportant. Try, in a polite manner, to put these issues into proper perspective with the individual or individuals involved. Often, people don't realize when conditions are actually pretty good.

Three other approaches to conflict resolution include a consensus approach, smoothing, and the dictatorial approach. A consensus approach means taking the issue to the people. If the conflict is between two groups with opposing viewpoints, you might — with their consent — bring the issue to a vote. Call a meeting and decide this issue once and for all. Exclude yourself from the voting.

Try to find a time when everyone involved can attend the meeting and make sure that everyone understands that this is the final vote on this issue. Let both sides have the same amount of time to voice their issues before calling for the vote. Also, make sure everyone is eligible to vote. In organizations, unions, or associations, check the bylaws. On a project team, you may simply state up front that everyone involved in working on the project can vote. Make sure this is set up clearly before taking a vote.

In other settings, you may informally poll individuals and get a consensus of how they feel the situation should best be resolved. Once again, make it known in advance that you are going to ask all the team participants. You can even do your voting or polling with an anonymous survey. A consensus doesn't necessarily require an actual vote. Informally obtain the opinions of everyone involved and make a decision based on the data you've collected. Make sure everyone understands that your decision is not arbitrary, but is based on the information you've obtained.

Smoothing is essentially sticking with what you do agree on and glossing over or putting aside whatever causes conflict. “Let's table that discussion until the next meeting” is a means of smoothing over a situation for the time being. While this is actually buying time until the conflict situation comes up again, it may provide time to research acceptable solutions, find more money, or utilize better resources to help settle the conflict. If you're lucky, the conflict is not as heated when the issue comes up again, and in some cases the conflict has resolved itself. Smoothing is not an active way of dealing with problems and can only be used with less serious conflicts.

You should have a zero-tolerance policy toward any type of racist, sexist, or violent behavior. Make sure, however, that you are correct before acting or accusing anyone of any such behavior!

When the project is close to the finish line, or time is of the essence, you may be forced to take the dictatorial approach, which doesn't appease many, but keeps the project on course. If the team members have nothing to lose, they could defect; if they are on staff, receiving a salary or compensation, or hope to gain from their experience with the project, they may simply have to buckle down and follow your commands. If the project is seriously threatened and other manners of conflict resolution will take too much time, you may need to take control in this manner. Use this method only as a last resort.

To sum it up, follow these tips when trying to resolve a conflict:

  • Carefully assess the nature and severity of the conflict. Do some research. Don't take things at face value.

  • If you are not specifically approached to resolve the conflict, decide whether and when you should get involved.

  • Make sure you know all the information before trying to mediate or reach any kind of agreement.

  • Respect people's wishes about whether to make a conflict known to others.

  • Know when a conflict is minor and will either go away or resolve itself without your intervention.

  • If you are involved in the conflict and feel that you cannot be objective, or might be perceived as unable to do so, have an outside party mediate or try to solve the conflict.

  • If the conflict requires an expert to solve the problem, such as a technical expert who may have the best solution to a dispute over which software to use, seek one out.

  • Look for compromise settlements and make sure each side walks away winning something in the negotiations.

  • Work to solve problems within the context or the scope of the project. If, for example, you are working with someone who is clearly displaying antisocial behavior, don't expect you will change such behavior developed over twenty-five years. Just find a way in which you and the team can work with this individual. If, however, it is a two-year project, you may need to deal with deeper-rooted problems.

  • Take a dictatorial approach only when absolutely necessary because of time or budget constraints, or because the quality of the product or service is poor.

  • Mediate, negotiate, and seek solutions that are the byproduct of collective ideas. Encourage positive alternatives to conflicts rather than rehashing and reiterating the conflict situation.

  • Do follow-up monitoring to make sure a resolved conflict stays that way.

  • Encourage people to use legal action only as a last resort.

  • Use a consensus or yield to a higher authority if necessary. Make sure all parties understand that that ruling will be the end result of the conflict and that they can then move on.

  • Always use tact, diplomacy, and take the high road.

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