Accept that Conflicts are Inevitable

Whenever we bring people together to solve problems and build products or services, we will encounter differences of opinion and conflict. Some forms of debate and arguing are productive. For instance, debating options and the best way forward can lead to better decisions and more robust solutions.

However, when arguments escalate beyond the facts at hand to become personal or impact team performance, they need to be addressed. A critical skill project managers need to develop is diagnosing the difference between the healthy debate of options or ideas and damaging arguing.

1.1.1 Interpret the Source and the Stage of the Conflict

Interpret the Source and the Stage of the Conflict
(Be on the look-out for conflict)

One tool for diagnosing the severity of conflict is the “Five Levels of Conflict” model developed by Speed Leas. It shows a progression from a simple problem to solve all the way to people or groups declaring war on one another.

Listening to the language and phrases the team uses and comparing it to descriptions of the five levels can help determine the stage of a conflict.

  • Level 1 (Problem to Solve) – The language is friendly and mostly constructive. People back up with statements with facts. E.G. “Oh, I see what you are saying now. I still prefer the other approach, but I understand your suggestion.”
  • Level 2 (Disagreement) – People start to include self-protection. E.G. “I know you think my idea won’t work, but we tried your suggestion last time, and there were a lot of problems.”
  • Level 3 (Contest) – The language becomes distorted with over-generalizations and magnified positions. E.G. “If only he wasn’t on the team…”, “She always takes over the demo.”
  • Level 4 (Crusade) -The conflict becomes more ideological and divided. E.G. “They’re just plain stupid” and “It’s not worth talking to them.”
  • Level 5 (World War) – The language is altogether combative, or the opposing people do not speak directly to each other. Only talking to those “on their side” and saying things such as, “It is us or them” and “We’ve got to beat them!”

So, while conflict can escalate to toxic levels, it is crucial to understand why it can also be constructive. Teams need to feel safe debating ideas and disagreeing with suggestions in order to build commitment for outcomes. Without passionate debate, which includes good-natured conflict, team members rarely buy-in and commit to decisions.

This lack of commitment, based on a fear of conflict, then leads to an avoidance of accountability as people hesitate to call out their peers. These factors are documented in Patrick Leniconi’s “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” model.

Healthy conflict is necessary for building commitment to decisions; it allows for the robust testing of ideas. This leads to a stronger commitment to the final group decision. This is why many high-performing teams seem to be continuously engaged in good-natured argument. They are trying to understand all the options, testing ideas for flaws, and consensus-building. These types of conflict are productive and desirable.  

1.1.2 Analyze the Context for the Conflict

(Determine the severity of the conflict)

Analyzing the context and the words used in arguments is an excellent way to understand the level of conflict.

Based on the 5 levels concept, the following model suggests some de-escalation responses based on conflict level.

Using this model, if we hear examples of, say,  “Level 3: Contest” type conflict, we could try negotiating and getting to the facts. This tries to take it from personal to factual.

5 LEVELS OF CONFLICT

1.1.3 Evaluate / Recommend / Reconcile the Appropriate Conflict Resolution Solution

Evaluate / Recommend / Reconcile the Appropriate Conflict Resolution Solution
(Try to resolve the conflict)

When it comes to resolving conflict, a practical model is the Dual-Concern Grid by Langton and Sadri. It describes conflict resolution options plotted on an axis that shows Concern for Others (X-axis) and Concern for Ourself (Y-axis).  

There are several ways we can try to resolve conflict. We could use positional power and tell people to stop arguing (graph Top Left –  Force / Direct), but this is temporary and futile since it does not solve the problem. Alternatively, we accommodate people by smoothing the problem and do the work ourselves (graph Bottom Right – Smooth / Accommodate). However, neither of these approaches is ideal.

Instead, we should try to be in the upper right quadrant of high concern for others and high concern for oneself. This is the collaborative area of conflict resolution where we confront the issue and hopefully solve it. This all sounds good in theory, but dealing with people when they are angry or upset is never straightforward.

A good approach to try is the Three Steps for Managing Conflict using a Confronting/Problem Solving Approach that combines several conflict resolution models.

The three-step model, starts with Step 1 “Define the Problem.” This involves acknowledging the conflict, establishing common ground or goals, such as ‘we both want what is best for the customer’ and separating the problem from the people. Next, Step 2 ‘Explore and Evaluate Alternatives’ is a “diverge,” brainstorming phase where many different alternatives are investigated and assessed. Lastly, Step 3 “Select Best Alternative,” is the “converge” step where we decide on the best way forward.

These tools are, at best, direction arrows on a tricky journey. They can help us navigate to a solution, but they do not replace the hard work of actively listening to both sides of the conflict and empathizing with different viewpoints. That takes an investment of patience and empathy. So too does the following steps of encouraging people to let go of personal attachment to ideas or feelings.

Conflicts are inescapable. At best, they are signs of a vibrant, robust team that is happy to test and improve their ideas and choices. However, if arguments become more personal, they also develop a harmful and counterproductive impact. Team members disengage and distance to protect themselves. Then ideas are not well tested, and blind-spots and problems occur.

The key is to care, to get engaged, listen and try to diagnose the conflicts occurring. Maybe do a reality test by following up individually afterward. Ask, “You and Preeta seemed to be having a heated debate about the design. Did you come to an agreement you are OK with?” Knowing when to let it go and when to step in is half the battle. Using these tools can help and provide some guidance for conflict resolution.

Deliverables and Tools

  • Five Dysfunctions of a Team – Patrick Lencioni
  • Five Levels of Conflict – Speed Leas
  • Dual-Concern Grid – Langton and Sadri
  • Confronting/Problem Solving – Various authors 

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