Team dynamics can be fragile, balanced things. As an engineering project manager, I must create a trusting atmosphere for my team’s engineers to deliver an innovative and quality design. It must also meet the scope—not more, not less, and not just what the designers want to build. Engineers, even ones from the same discipline, approach the same design situation and achieve the project outcome differently. Project managers’ challenges include hosting a place where everyone can contribute AND openly consider others’ contributions.
Conflict is inevitable. At the right level, it can be productive and keep a group responsive to their environment.1 It can also be destructive when team members overlook the disparity between task conflict and relationship conflict. Task conflict involves differences based on work details and goals. Relationship conflict develops over disagreements and differences between individuals and groups. Personality types and biases are inputs to this conflict type.2 Instead of considering the content of suggestions and ideas, a teammate caught in relationship conflict may disregard a peer’s thinking without due consideration. It can spiral to the wider team and degrade the quality of meetings, collaboration sessions, and events where teams are attempting to reach a decision and resolve conflicts.
People can take new perspectives and be more creative while confronting issues in productive conflict.3 Minor disagreements can create low conflict and stimulate quality group decision-making. The use of a devil’s advocate is an example of low conflict, and its use can produce productive, critical thinking based conversation.4
Conflict is often correlated negatively with team productivity and satisfaction.5 Moving through it quickly can produce a cohesive, high-performing team. As conflict intensifies, the progress may stall. People feel threatened, cognitive flexibility decreases, and members stop their creative thinking and sharing.6
In the book Crucial Conversations, Kerry Patterson discusses “filling the pool of shared meaning.” A leader can facilitate an important dialogue during conflict. All parties communicate their opinions and perspectives for equal consideration.7 The more information in the shared pool, the better the group decision-making.
Managers can use psychological safety as a way to focus conflict toward a task. This safety is defined as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”8 Collaborative project delivery methods can foster this environment. The incentives for positive project outcome favor the client, the contractor, and the designer working together. The “best for project” mindset facilitates the ultimate shared goal. The leader’s charge is to create an appropriate space for the team members to contribute to the shared knowledge pool.9
Partnering sessions are another method to develop solutions. The key team members, through a facilitator, work to establish a shared set of goals for the project. They agree on delivery, resolution, and escalation processes like a zipper plan for conflict. In a zipper plan, the counterparts of multiple organizations work together with a goal for proactive communication. The contractor, designer, and owner in a design-build project are named at the project start. When task conflicts arise that the team members cannot resolve, they can escalate them calmly to the next level for assistance. Using this technique limits the potential for relationship conflict. The team can also move a decision up the ladder if a relationship conflict is the root cause of the impasse. This “best for project” mentality breaks through and focuses energy on the decision itself.
Another method for preempting conflict is currently being pioneered by Simplar, a group of industry professionals, professors, and researchers advancing project management and delivery knowledge and practice. Their risk-based planning and partnering process includes a planning and risk-management framework method called CRISP—Concern, Risk, Issue, Suspicion, or Problem. It is composed of concrete steps that help address escalation and problem resolution for a specific project risk. I have seen this used by a municipal utility to assist its staff through their first progressive design-build project. The framework facilitated the team members’ ability to process “best for project” solutions. It was a useful tool for them to create accountability, transparency, and collaboration instead of only assigning risk to organizations. The method asks the team to capture detailed conflict resolution steps and how to minimize the conflict’s impact if the risk occurs, such as itemizing the cascading impacts (late vendor supply, late delivery of entire project) that will occur due to late document reviews on critical path items in the project. Then the team agrees on how to resolve each of those impacts in advance. It can help all parties connect the direct relationship between key project tasks and daily fines imposed by not meeting regulatory deadlines for project commissioning.
Conflicts among engineering disciplines, between clients and contractors, and between contractors and subcontractors are common. Managers must lead the group conversations to determine and agree on appropriate resolution strategies, processes, and tools during the team-forming phase. This will facilitate the team’s focus on solutions instead of personalities, tasks instead of relationship conflicts, and on root causes instead of blaming. Consider how you can shape the discussions in your next project meeting so everyone can hear a good idea, despite who says it.
1. J.M. Brett, “Managing Organizational Conflict,” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 15(5) (1984): 664–678, https://doi.org/10.1037/0735-7028.15.5.664.
2. Katie Shonk, “3 Types of Conflict and How to Address Them,” Program on Negotiation Daily Blog, Harvard Law School, October 10, 2022, https://www.pon.harvard.edu/daily/conflict-resolution/types-conflict/.
3. John M. Levine, Lauren B. Resnick, and E. Tory Higgins, “Social Foundations of Cognition,” Annual Review of Psychology, 44 (1993): 585–612.
4. P.J. Carnevale and T.M. Probst, “Social Values and Social Conflict in Creative Problem Solving and Categorization,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74 (1998): 1300–1309.
5. Deborah L. Gladstein, “A Model of Task Group Effectiveness,” Administrative Science Quarterly, 29(4) (1984): 499–517.
6. Gladstein, “A Model of Task Group Effectiveness,” 499–517.
7. Kerry Patterson et. al., Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), 24-48.
8. Amy Edmondson, “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams,”Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 44 (June l999).
9. Patterson et. al., Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, 55.