Fight or Flight?
Most points of difference can be resolved through negotiation, discussion or input from a third party. But other times, circumstances quickly descend into acrimony.
Bear in mind when a "fight" breaks out, it's always personal and emotional. If you can remove those two elements, all that remains is a difference or disagreement that can be resolved.
Unfortunately, emotions kick in quick and are far more powerful than rational thought. Fight or flight is one of the most basic of survival strategies. As soon as a trigger matching the learned pattern of a perceived threat is sensed, the fight reaction cuts in. Some time later -- a few seconds or a few hours later -- rational thought may override the need to fight, but it always lags the instantaneous emotional reaction.
The easiest of the conflicts to manage is where a stereotype is involved. You simply have to distinguish the specific person from the overall stereotype. For example, if a team member has an issue with the project management office (PMO), you can say: "Yes, everyone from the PMO is an interfering bureaucrat focused on wasting time by gathering excessive detail. But Mary from the PMO is different; she's really a 'project manager' and can make your job easy." In this scenario, you simply highlight Mary's positives and distance her from the PMO stereotype.
When the fight response is more personal, you should still try to remove the emotion, but your task is much harder. Remember, emotions are instinctive, and factors such as fatigue, stress and emotional events can all shift the balance of power toward the fight instinct.
Taking time out to cool down allows rational thinking to seep in, provided the emotions aren't triggered again as soon as the other person returns. This process can be encouraged by diversionary tactics, such as changing the focus or place of discussion, or doing something completely different. It's a good time to go down to the pub...
Mediators use a number of tactics to start a rational negotiation. One is to encourage each of the parties to let it all out and vent their anger in a controlled environment. Once a person has done this, it's very difficult to maintain the rage. Another is to hold one-on-one discussions and carry messages back and forth between the parties. This removes the trigger for fighting and allows messages to be heard. If there's any common ground, rational debate can start and, with luck and good management, continue once the parties are face to face.
A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) advocates keeping disagreements professional and based on rational discussions of information. While this is desirable, we're all people with emotions and sometimes those emotions will take over. A good manager recognizes this and allows time for emotions to settle before using more proactive negotiating tactics to bring rational debate back into play.
How do you deal with conflict?
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