Conflict is an inevitable part of project management. On one hand, you are managing client expectations and needs. On the other hand, you are managing a team that’s working to collectively solve a problem. Big or small, disagreements will surface between these groups and conflict will arise.
While it’s natural to want to avoid confrontation, in my experience, I’ve found that conflict is actually a terrific opportunity to strengthen team bonds and improve working relationships. Instead of viewing conflict as something that’s negative, view it as an opportunity to benefit the task at hand.
As an M.A. in Conflict Resolution and Management, I rely on my knowledge of the “5 Conflict Styles” to make the most of conflict. Knowing these style allows me to understand why someone might have entered a state of conflict, and more importantly, how I can help pull them out of it and push the project forward.
The Five Conflict Styles
The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Styles Assessment Tool has been used for over thirty years to help teams work better with each other by understanding their conflict styles. We are all capable of these five styles, but we tend to default to one over the other in times of storm vs. times of calm. Knowing these conflict styles helps you navigate through storms with guidelines for success. Let’s start by explaining the graph below.
Assertiveness: The level at which you are willing to assert your own positions, needs, opinions, and concerns. On the extreme, you assert yourself at the expense of others during a conflict.
Cooperativeness: The level to which you try to hear others and positions, needs, opinions, and concerns. On the extreme, you cater to another’s needs at the expense of your own during a conflict.
This mode is ideal for agencies because of the emphasis on both relationships and the task at hand. This style allows for problems to be solved more optimally because everyone’s voice is heard and accounted for. However, this styles still has its pros and cons.
Pros: Creates a sense of trust; focuses on the task at hand and takes into account teammates’ working relationships. It creates buy-in and is the most productive way of dealing with conflict.
Cons: Time & energy consuming.
My way or the highway. People who use this style to focus on the task at hand and aren’t worried about a teammate’s well-being, relationships, or the big picture.
Pros: Goal oriented; quick.
Cons: May breed hostility and resentment, which would eventually impact the quality of the work your team produces.
The non-confrontational approach. No need to explain this, we all have been or have known someone who is conflict avoidant.
Pros: Does not escalate conflict; postpones difficulty.
Cons: Low assertiveness and dependability. Allows for issues to fester which eventually harm your teams and projects.
Everyone needs to get along no matter what! This style is typically on the extreme end of the cooperativeness spectrum and assigns little emphasis on assertiveness.
Pros: People’s emotions are protected at all cost. Cooperative and relationship focused.
Cons: Breeds hostility when the impact on relationships isn’t addressed and conflicts are unresolved; more easily exploited.
We all win some and lose some. People use this more than they know when managing projects with an aggressive deadline and a limited budget.
Pros: Useful for dealing with issues quickly and minimizing damage by finding short-term solutions. Democratizes decision-making and is optimal when you can’t afford long-term collaboration style.
Cons: No one is completely happy about the outcome. Doesn’t typically deal with root causes of an issue.
Why Should I Care?
Here’s why knowing your conflict style, as well as your team’s and client’s, is helpful if you work at or with an agency:
Tactful Team Management
As an project manager, knowing your team’s conflict styles helps you understand how to communicate with them in a way they would respond positively to. For instance, if you are dealing with a teammate that has an “accommodating” conflict style, assuring them that your personal relationship will not be impacted by the situation at hand would help them calm down and be more open to compromise and collaboration. This would result in a better quality deliverable to the client, as well as the development of a stronger bond between you and your teammate.
Stronger Team Collaboration
A similar example to the above example, if your project’s graphic designer is dealing with a web developer that is extremely assertive and task-oriented, i.e. “competing” in their conflict style, the designer can employ their knowledge of conflict styles and assert themselves to the betterment of your project and client. For instance, when the “competing” task-oriented web developer is in storm, their main goal is to ensure that their perspective is heard. When the graphic designer assures them that the task at hand will be accomplished and that they are dedicated to getting it done, the web developer feels like their needs, positions, opinions, etc. are heard. That approach helps the web developer come out of storm mode and creates more leverage to convince them to compromise or even collaborate on a mutually agreeable result.
The Trust of Your Client
Clients are your partners in a project, and ultimately, all of the work you are doing is for them. Understanding their conflict styles will help you manage their expectations, ease their anxiety, and earn their trust. As you can see from the Five Conflict Styles graph, adopting a Collaborative conflict style ensures cooperativeness and assertiveness, which often makes it the most useful style to ensure that the client’s goals are met and your team’s expertise is being utilized.
The most important thing to remember about conflict management and resolution is to not become too personally invested. You need to remember that people reach conflicts due to a number of factors, and blaming them for getting to that point won’t help anyone.
Stay cool and calm, and use your management skills to pull people out of conflict and push the project forward. That’s the key to great project management!
Ahmed has mastered managing everything from fast-moving, short-term web projects to large-scale, multi-year contracts. He leads each with diligence, level-headedness, and incredible problem-solving skills. Always a great listener and eager to help, Ahmed has that ready-for-anything attitude every team needs. The caveat is that when he's on the soccer field, Ahmed reserves his kind demeanor for the post-game handshakes only.