How to Turn Stakeholder Conflict on Its Head

Project managers encounter conflict regularly over schedules, project priorities, human resources, requirements, and technical opinions, to name a few. Individuals, groups, and organizations have different opinions, sometimes strong opinions. These conflicts may surface internally, as well as externally.

How to Turn Stakeholder Conflict on Its Head

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I remember a project that I managed where the organization wanted to create a customer service representative (CSR) position. Previously, administrative personnel handled the customer service in the remote locations. The introduction of the CSR would have greatly diminished the administrative personnel’s role and responsibilities.

I was asked to facilitate a series of meetings with key stakeholders. I remember the tension in the first meeting. The body language, the tone of voices, and the arguments all magnified the conflict. All project managers encounter conflicts like this one. How can keep peace while working through the opposing views?

5 Ways to Respond to Stakeholder Conflict

Whenever you face strong differences in opinions, determine how you will manage the conflict. Here are five common conflict management techniques:

  1. Withdrawing. Some project managers hate conflict and avoid it as much as possible. Withdrawing from the conflict does not make it go away. The issues will surely surface later in the project and will likely cause more damage than if addressed early.
  2. Smoothing. Other project managers are as smooth as silk. These project managers emphasize the areas of agreement and fail to address the differences of opinion, thus, kicking the can down the road.
  3. Compromising. Another method of dealing with conflict is to search for solutions where the stakeholders will compromise.
  4. Forcing. Project managers may be given authority and power. These individuals are prone to “lay down the law.” Team members may comply, but typically these same members find a way to undermine the project manager later.
  5. Problem-Solving. Turn the difference in opinions into a problem to be solved mutually by the stakeholders by careful examination of the alternatives.

Of these techniques, withdrawing and smoothing are easiest and least effective. Sooner or later the stakeholders will make their opinions known. Compromising is certainly better and can bring about positive results. Forcing may move things forward quickly, but it can be risky.

My personal favorite is problem-solving if time permits. Why? Problem-solving often results in a better understanding of everyone’s opinions, analysis of the solutions, and long-term buy-in and support. There’s less likelihood of stakeholders undermining the decisions later.

How to Turn Conflict into a Problem-Solving Exercise

You can help stakeholders resolve the conflict by reframing the conflict as a problem-solving exercise. Seek to understand the differences of opinions and makes them transparent, carefully leading individuals and groups to find common ground. This is more than consensus. Problem-solving leads to a mutual commitment by the stakeholders with greater buy-in and support.

Make no mistake about it; problem-solving takes time and effort. Project managers must use their leadership skills to influence the stakeholders. How persuasive are you? How well do you listen? How well do you communicate and help others communicate?

Another key ingredient is a clearly-defined decision process. Great project managers focus on the project goals, carefully choose the decision model (e.g., consensus, consultative, command), and determine ahead of time who will make the final decision – the project manager, the team, or the sponsor.