“The absence of conflict is not harmony, it’s apathy” (Eisenhardt)
“God does not play dice” (Einstein)… would God be so cruel to structure so much conflict if it could not be constructive (Tjosvold)?
I come from a Canadian middle class family with a British lineage. At a young age we were taught to be quiet and polite, not to disturb or offend people, to be diplomatic… and specifically not to argue. Unless things got really, really, really bad. It was always curious for me being with my Mediterranean friends who almost seemed to love to argue about absolutely everything. Their families seemed to always be so passionate and yelling about everything (slight exaggeration for effect… but not by much from what I remembered). I think my Mediterranean friends may have had some advantages.
In the world of sustainable project management, the very nature of sustainability discussions creates conflict. This is because of how individuals interpret, position and engage in the various sustainability topics. Taking a quick look at the GPM P5 discussion areas presented below highlights the opportunities for differing opinions and perspectives.
The key is to remember that constructive conflict is actually necessary and beneficial, and that people perceive, interpret and respond to different situations based on a number of factors.
For a start, a quick definition.
Conflict: competitive or opposing action of incompatibles : antagonistic state or action (as of divergent ideas, interests, or persons).
Conflict is Positive
Globalization, demanding international marketplaces, immigration flows, business alliances, and other forces are intensifying the demands on people throughout organizations to confront their differences and manage their conflicts. Just because we need to manage our conflicts does not mean that we will.
Traditional conflict stereotypes, such as the following, have been proven to be nonsensical and counter-productive:
- conflict involves opposing interests where one has to fight to win,
- a ‘conflict-free’ environment is possible,
- avoiding conflict is a viable long-term solution,
- conflicts should be discussed ‘maturely’ without emotions,
- and only task conflicts can be successfully managed confuse and distract managers and employees (Tjosvold).
Despite my coming from a Canadian British heritage, which typically avoids conflict at all costs, as Tjosvold rightly pointed out “conflict can be highly constructive, indeed, essential to teamwork and organizational effectiveness. Why have a team if team members have similar backgrounds and think alike or are homogeneous? The very rationale for an organization is to combine the energy, ideas, and knowledge of diverse people.
Combining this diversity requires ongoing conflict management; management cannot simply mix various perspectives in a bowl but people must themselves hammer out new ideas and approaches through ongoing discussion. To work in an organization is to be in conflict. As referenced in the blog post “The Dangers of Tribalism with Project Methods“, the other issue is that groups often become tribal and stand by and argue points just because that is the tribes position. To take advantage of joint work and deal with issues like politics and tribalism requires constructive conflict management.”
Project managers specifically have to realize that conflict is positive, and that organizational politics that are perceived as conflicting are actually a good thing that needs to be engaged and leveraged. Project teams that challenge and debate each other’s arguments “develop a more complete understanding of their choices, create a richer range of options, and make better decisions” (Eisenhardt, Kahwajy & Bourgeois, 1997).
The key is prevent conflict from escalating into interpersonal conflict, by using tactics such as the following (HBR: How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight):
- They work with more, rather than less, information.
- They develop multiple alternatives to enrich debate.
- They establish common goals.
- They make an effort to inject humor into the workplace.
- They maintain a balanced corporate power structure.
- They resolve issues without forcing a consensus.
One of the advantages that project managers have is that the project team is able to engage in a positive and cooperative manner to accomplish their related goals. Conflict management can help to get things done by openly and constructively debating points… you want that doubt and uncertainty to analyze and find better solutions as opposed to the easy ones sometimes (possibly every-time?). It has been researched that even anger and frustration in debates can be healthy long term for the team and relationships as long as the debate is not personal. “The discussants are then able to clarify their intentions and make amends, and these understandings can in turn develop confidence that similar incidents are less likely” (Tjosvold, 2008).
It is well recognized in the news, journals, academia, and social media that there is a lot of conflict around sustainability discussions. For those fortunate and leading project managers that are managing their projects sustainably and with sustainable outcomes being conversant (if not indeed expert) in dealing with constructive positive conflict is a key competency.
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