Project Management Professional (PMP)® Articles - Tension & Misunderstandings: How to Help Your Team Overcome Conflict

Tension & Misunderstandings: How to Help Your Team Overcome Conflict

Workplace conflict can be a drain on team morale and even a company's bottom line. According to CPP, office conflict costs US employers around $359 billion paid hours each year. Additionally, the same study found that 27 percent of employees claim that workplace conflicts have even led to personal attacks.

Conflict can be uncomfortable. It can bring about negative emotions and scenarios, especially when personal feelings get involved. So, in addition to leading teams through various milestones, project managers should also work to help teams manage conflict and personality differences that can lead to workplace disagreements. According to the Washington Business Journal, 20 to 45 percent of a manager's time is spent dealing with workplace conflict. Therefore, developing conflict resolution skills will be a crucial task for you.

As a project management professional, you can turn conflicts and uncomfortable situations into opportunities for growth and progression. The question is, how do you do that? Additionally, how can you prevent conflict from derailing project progress? Check out these tips for managing tension and helping your teams push through conflict.

Don't Let It Fester

One of the potentially damaging things you can do in regards to conflict is to let it fester. Think about any previous experience you have had with conflict, whether it be with family, friends, or co-workers. Now, think about a time where it wasn't addressed. Did it help or hurt the relationship? It is highly likely that avoiding the problem led to long-term negative feelings. Allowing this to happen within your teams can be a huge obstacle for your workplace. So, make a point to face your conflicts head-on. Of course, you want to do this delicately, but the goal is to realize that facing disputes is the right course of action. The last thing you want is for there to be permanent damage to workplace relationships. So, ensuring that you are not ignoring the conflict is a significant first step in this process.

Consult with Your HR Team

Workplace conflict management is definitely in the sphere of influence of your HR or personnel team. Hopefully, these individuals have been through conflict management training and can help steer you in the right direction to start the conversation. Don't be afraid to involve other professionals in your team who are experts in managing this situation. Your HR team could give you the right wording to use in mediations and guidance on the process to put in place to help your team members successfully move through conflict.

Set a Time to Discuss the Conflict

As human beings, it is expected that we will, at some point, be on the opposite sides of issues. We are all not meant to agree on everything—which helps in a team atmosphere. Nevertheless, you want to ensure that conflict is still handled effectively. So, be sure to work with both parties to set up a time to discuss the situation. This move not only lets them know that you are taking the problem seriously but that you are taking the first step to validate each of their feelings. Also, use your best judgment here. You may decide to speak to each person separately to create a conflict management strategy and then bring everyone together. Be fluid and flexible in how you approach this part of the process. Again, don't be afraid to use the help of your HR team in setting this up.

Set Boundaries

Not all workplace conflict is created equal. Sometimes, things can be a simple misunderstanding, while other situations can become much more serious. As a result, you need to set some boundaries. These can include rules like:

  • No toleration for name-calling.
  • Parties have to promise not to interrupt during conversations and discussions.
  • You will speak with both individuals separately before bringing everyone together.
  • Everyone has to treat all involved parties with respect and dignity.
  • There will be a use of disciplinary tactics if the boundaries are violated.

Additionally, it makes sense also to outline when something is outside of your scope and needs to move up the chain of command immediately. For example, if there is a severe accusation made that involves a situation of alleged sexual assault or racial discrimination—or anything of equal seriousness—then you need to have an effective process for handling these issues swiftly and effectively.

Address the Root of the Issue

You may be tempted just to address the surface-level conflict. For example, you could have two employees that always seem to bump heads when they work together. One may always neglect to inform the other party of progress they have made or involve them in crucial decision-making. If this has become a pattern, then the issue is likely much more involved than this. Your goal is to get to the ultimate root of these problems so you can help these team members move past this recurring conflict. Failing to do this will ensure that problems will continue to arise. This step may take a little more work, but it will benefit you and your overall team efforts in the long-term.

Invest in Conflict Management Training

According to CPP, 95 percent of employees feel that conflict resolution training is advantageous. There is a reason why they think this way. Solid conflict management training can give yourself and your team the tools they need to manage uncomfortable situations involving personal feelings or misunderstandings. Forty-nine percent of conflict is a result of personality clashes and warring egos. So, it's crucial to address how team members—and yourself—should approach situations involving disagreements. It's not always easy to know what to do when you disagree with someone, and receiving instruction on what to do can help your team overcome conflict while minimizing potential workplace distractions and long-term negative emotions.

Tension and Misunderstandings Can Bring Growth

Every disagreement should be seen as an opportunity for growth. It can give yourself and your team insight into how you all work differently and help you to develop ways to better work together. Nevertheless, conflict resolution isn’t one-size-fits-all. Determining the best way to manage conflict will depend on the personalities involved and how you guide everyone toward a solution. Again, conflict is natural, but the way it is dealt with can change the tide. The goal is to help your team look at dissension as a way to move forward and ultimately improve as a team and co-workers. You can take back your workday and increase productivity by making conflict resolution a priority for your project teams.


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