Conflict is Useful, Don’t Avoid It
“Conflict is a fact of life. People disagree about what they are doing, why they are doing it and how best to do it. In fact, if you are working in any kind of collaborative effort and there is no conflict, then something’s wrong.“1
Conflict is a difference of opinion that prevents agreement. In projects we deal with complex concepts and complex relationships and the combination of the two makes for a fertile ground for conflict. Conflicts are normal and, if managed well, they can be quite useful.
Conflicts are normal because people have different ways of looking at things and different ways of interpreting what they see. We have a propensity to become attached to our perceptions and create fixed positions around them. This leads to unhealthy conflict, but when the attachment and fixed positions are eliminated there is the possibility of healthy conflict.
Conflicts are useful because they are opportunities to address multiple perspectives on meaningful issues and find the most effective ways of moving projects towards successful ends.
But, conflict has a harsh sound to it. Some people think of it as something negative. Some definitions have it as being a struggle or fight for power or property. One definition from Merriam-Webster is “strong disagreement between people, groups, etc., that results in often angry argument.”
I met an experienced management consultant who trained people to not have conflicts. They learned to manage controversies, disputes and differences of opinion. He didn’t like the word conflict so he used other words. To me “A rose by any other name smells as sweet.”
Conflict is disagreement between people with different views. It is neither good nor bad. It may manifest as a small dispute or a major battle. It may result in often angry arguments, or in optimal resolutions and continuously improving relationships among the participants.
Decisions and Conflict
Conflict management is of critical importance because it is at the heart of decision making. Decision making implies that there are competing possibilities and that means that there is conflict to resolve. Decisions set the direction for action. High-leverage decisions are those that have a significant impact on the project, for example, whether to build or buy is a high-leverage decision while what color a particular component will be has a far smaller impact.
The Absence of Conflict is Dangerous
When there is no conflict in a project or anywhere in an organization, for that matter, there may very well be something wrong. It may mean that the people involved all think alike, seeing things the same way because they share common thinking and communication styles and a common belief and value system. This may sound good – peaceful consensus, no discord, everyone happily going in the same direction, kumbaya – but it is dangerous and boring. Why, because it is likely that there are alternatives that are being overlooked that may be significantly better than the one everyone agrees upon. Decision making is easy when everyone thinks alike and there are few, if any, alternatives. Decisions, however, may not be all they could be.
In an Abilene Paradox the participants decide on a course of action that is not in their best interest or in the best interest of their organization. People don’t want to rock the boat or are afraid that their opinions will seem stupid or will upset others, so they don’t raise objections or alternatives. As a result, flawed concepts lead to flawed plans and designs which then lead to project and product failures.
For example, Bill presents a plan he has worked up, Jose is pretty sure that the plan is overly optimistic but he doesn’t express his opinion. Sita also keeps to herself the thought that the plan is overlooking some key issues and is therefore optimistic. If either Jose or Sita had spoken up, the other would probably have chimed in. Chances are that Bill would have agreed and been open to adjusting the plan. If Bill was resistant, there would have been a dialog, debate or even an argument about the issues. The end result would most likely have been a more effective plan. With Jose and Sita not speaking up, the group was off and running on a project that had little chance of successfully coming in on time and budget.
Causes of Conflict Avoidance
Personal styles, environmental conditions, planning shortfalls, attitudes, and hierarchies, influence the degree to which people avoid conflict.
One of Thomas and Kilman’s five conflict styles is Avoiding. People with this style do not address conflict directly. “Avoiding might take the form of diplomatically side stepping an issue, postponing an issue, until a better time or simply withdrawing from a threatening situation.” (Thomas and Kilman, n.d., pp. 8-9). whether this tendency is caused by social issues or is simply in-born, is not as practical a question as , what can one do to balance avoidance with other alternative styles – confronting, compromising, etc to find the right approach for the situation at hand.
Homogeneity is a condition in which everyone is alike. In organizations, this may occur because the selection of new members is skewed to reject anyone who may be different. Some managers choose people who think like they do, communicate like they do, even look like they do. “Others” who may somehow sneak in are converted, isolated or eliminated.
Homogeneous environments have become less and less prevalent as diversity awareness increases, but where they still exist it is skillful to recognize them and stimulate thinking that challenges preconceived beliefs and norms.
Watch out for “That’s the way we do it here” attitudes. Confront them by periodically having the members of the project team or department periodically asking themselves why they do what they do in the way they do it. Put processes in place that requires assessing at least two alternatives for every meaningful decision. Appreciate and acknowledge the value that contrarians bring. Promote healthy conflicts at the right points in projects to make sure that plan and design alternatives are evaluated to identify optimal outcomes.
Remember, the fact that a large number of people are in favor of something does not make that something right or good.
Psychological theories imply that people often avoid acting in a way that is contrary to what they perceive as the will of the group. Many people are afraid of bringing up differing issues. They fear being branded “not a team player.” They fear standing up to their boss. They fear being excluded from the group and losing their job.
Some people avoid speaking up because they do not adequately value their own opinions. “Who am I to say that there is a better way?” they might ask themselves.
Not Enough Time
Estimating and scheduling issues often influence conflict avoidance. For example, deadlines are too tight and don’t leave enough time for exploring alternatives. Conclusions are forced. Individuals who bring up objections or competing ideas are shut down. When you plan, make sure there is sufficient time for due diligence in decision making, especially for high-leverage decisions.
Estimating and scheduling issues may stem from tendencies to avoid conflict or from simple oversight. In the end, result is the same, conflict avoidance.
What to Do
Step back and assess the why you are not bringing up objections and conflicting ideas.
If it stems from emotions like fear, or anger, consider pushing through and doing what is unnatural. Confront when appropriate to make truly effective decisions by resolving conflicts based on fact and logic moderated by common sense and intuition.
Leave sufficient time in the schedule for dialogue and analysis.
Have project forums for raising and addressing issues and resolving conflicts. Openly discuss and reflect on your conflict management process, both as an individual and in your group.
Insert events in your plan that require critical analysis of deliverables and, at key points, assess strategy and design alternatives and other significant issues.
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