Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Rules of Conflict

Conflict isn’t automatically negative, although it certainly can be.

Conflict can also be an opportunity for greater understanding, a way to resolve problems, or in some trivial cases, something to be ignored or dismissed.

Conflict involves actual or perceived clashes of needs, wants, values, and interests, and ranges in intensity from polite conversation all the way to war. Conflicts can cause varying amounts of damage, and may be resolved well or poorly.

Project management is a field where conflict is inevitable and common. Stakeholders have needs, wants, values, and interests. Resources are limited. Your goal is to manage inevitable conflict in the most effective way possible.

The Project Management Institute (PMI) identifies various strategies for managing conflict: smoothing, withdrawal, compromise, forcing, and confrontation. Of these, according to PMI, confrontation (I think “negotiation” is a better word) is the strategy normally preferred by project managers.

I think that’s dangerously misleading. In fact, every single one of these strategies has a time and place for which it is the best solution. Two variables should influence your decision. First, how important is achieving your goal to you? If life and death are at stake, your goals are very important to you. If the question is where we’re going to have lunch today, your goals may matter a lot less.

The second question is a little more subtle: how important is the other person’s goal to you? If the conflict is with someone you care about, making them happy may be very important to you. Keeping customers, bosses, and co-workers happy is normally worth some minor concessions on your part. Other times, what the other person wants may not matter to you.

If you plot the PMI categories on a grid, you get the picture above. Let's look at the categories that fall inside the box.

  • Smoothing. Sometimes winning isn’t the issue. You’re having Thanksgiving dinner with the extended family, and someone brings up one of those appropriate dinner table conversation topics—like abortion. No matter how passionate your beliefs, this isn’t the time and isn’t the place, so you avoid the conflict by changing the subject.
  • Withdrawal. Sometimes, as noted, the other person’s needs are more important to you than your own, and you can withdraw or surrender. If you really hate Thai food that much, let’s go somewhere else, even though it’s my favorite cuisine. Conversely, if we’re going out to dinner with a large group and I’m the only one who likes Thai food, I know I’ll be outvoted, so I surrender to the majority graciously.
  • Compromise. Or maybe you don’t like Thai food and I don’t like sushi, so we compromise and decide to go to an Indian restaurant instead. If we both like Indian food well enough, even though we each might like our own choice better, we can have a nice dinner anyway. But if neither of us like Indian, we’re making two people unhappy instead of making only one of us happy, so compromise isn’t always a winning solution.
  • Forcing. I could insist that you join me for Thai food. Perhaps I have a food allergy or dietary restriction that makes it impossible for me to go along with your preference. It’s my way, or no group dinner tonight. Sometimes there's no choice.
  • Negotiation. Finally, we could talk about what we each like about our favorite cuisine and try to find a restaurant that will serve something we each would like to eat. If we’re successful, neither of us has to compromise. We both win.

None of these strategies is inherently right, none inherently wrong. Negotiation is the route to the most satisfying long-term answer, but it takes time and skill, and sometimes there’s not enough at stake to go through the exercise.

When conflict stays within the box, it’s manageable. When conflict breaks out, we call it war.

The opposite of war, you see, isn’t peace. Peace (preferably on your terms) is the goal of war. Pretending the conflict isn’t there doesn’t work. If the stakes are that high, the real opposite of war is negotiation.

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