A team goes through five stages in a project: forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning. The success of a project depends on how much time the team spends in the storming and performing stages. If a team leader is good at managing conflicts, the storming stage can be shortened, and the team can gain more time for performing. That significantly increases the chances of success.
Many authors and PMI’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) define five techniques to resolve conflicts: withdraw/avoid, smooth/accommodate, compromise/reconcile, force/direct and collaborate/problem solve.
Aside from collaborate/problem solve, in my opinion all the approaches conclude with either one party winning and the other losing, or with both losing. I think these techniques are intended to achieve results only in the short term, and give no thought to what will happen in the long term.
If you use withdraw or force, one person wins and other loses. The winner might be satisfied, but what about the person who has lost? Will he/she not try to recover losses at the next opportunity? In my experience, if you use smooth or compromise, both parties lose by having to give up something that is important to them.
Let’s take a common example: negotiating price with a vendor. A conflict can arise because you both want a favorable price. Suppose you have the upper hand and force the vendor to settle on a considerably lower price than he or she wanted. Have you resolved the conflict? Probably not.
Since the vendor lost in the negotiation, he or she may try to gain back the lost money by working on the lower threshold of the acceptable range, trying to cut corners in the process or production, or using cheaper material. This will degrade the quality of the deliverable. What you think is a win-lose for you could easily become a lose-lose.
The same thing can happen when you negotiate a salary with a candidate, negotiate a promotion/raise with your report, or settle a conflict between two team members by either forcing one, or asking both, to compromise.
Compromise or smooth are even worse, in my opinion. They are lose-lose in the short term and even worse in the long term. That’s because in compromise or smooth, we often sacrifice important things. Later, both parties keep trying to recover the things they compromised away. They repeatedly negotiate with little takeaway. Lots of time is wasted in negotiations and productivity remains low.
I think problem solving/collaborating is the only technique that truly resolves conflicts. The collaboration focuses on the problem and helps solve it to the satisfaction of both parties—and therefore resolves the conflict for good. It’s easier said than done, of course.
I’ll focus on the collaborate/problem solve technique in my next blog. Until then, please share your views. How have you resolved conflict within your team? What were the results in the short-term and long-term?