Chapter 3 – Project Manager as a Leader

3.5. Ask An Expert — Kavya Kumar

Ask An Expert

Kavya Kumar

Certified Human Resources Leader

Kavya Kumar

Kavya Kumar holds an MBA from the Ivey School of Business at Western University. She is currently an HR Director with TMX Group and has HR Experience from CIBC, Cineplex and Doctors Without Borders Canada.

Certified Human Resources Leader from HRPA

Question 1: How has your past experience with conflict resolution helped you on subsequent projects?

It’s important to understand teamwork and collaboration in order to better understand conflict resolution. Some level of conflict is good, and even healthy. So we must understand what that healthy balance is – how much do you push and pull regarding your ideas about the work before you let it escalate? You have to understand when the conflict is personal versus when it’s about ideas to get the work done. If everybody agreed with each other all of the time, some of the best ideas would not move forward. However; when the conflict gets personal, that starts to detract from the work.

Question 2: In your experience, what has been the most common source of conflict while working on a project?

The most common source of conflict usually comes from a miscommunication about what everyone’s roles and expectations are for the project. It is important for everyone on the team to be open in this regard so that there are no misunderstandings. So, it is important to start all projects by having everyone explain why they want to be on the team and what interests them about the project.

Question 3: In your experience, what behaviours are indicative of conflict? Similarly, what behaviours promote conflict resolution?

A lack of willingness to engage, to be open, and to share are behaviours that are usually indicative of conflict. Some groups might have members that are more direct and dominant and may talk over other people, whereas other members might be more introverted and process ideas quieter. It is important to note that everyone has a role that they play and everyone has value to add to the group. And it is important for everyone to get a chance to share their ideas, so usually conflict comes around when people stop engaging, stop showing up for meetings, stop contributing ideas, and become surly. The conflict may start off passive-aggressively and then can escalate to a shouting match because of all of the little behaviours that start to add up.

To promote conflict resolution, it’s important to sit down with the group and discuss the norms. Who are we as a team? How do we like to work? What are our pet peeves? What do we want to handle? What can we handle? It’s important to realize that everyone has a life outside of the scope of the project. Some people might be in school, or have a part-time job or other things going on – so it’s important to be honest about what each person can contribute. When each person is open about their strengths and weaknesses, it helps move the project along. Everyone brings their own strengths to the project, so in a sense – projects can be thought of as a relay race. When it comes time to do your part of the role, you’re ready to run your leg of the race, and then let the next person take over and complete their portion. For this to work, everyone has to know what their strengths are and be able to have the conversation early on. These conversations also make everyone comfortable with one another and help the team develop an understanding of each other. So, if a person reacts outside of their norm, you would know it’s not personal, they may just be stressed.

Question 4: How do you approach employees who seem to inherently seek conflict within the project team?

It’s important to think about our perceptions and challenge ourselves to question if this is our perception of the individual or if that is who they really are. As simple as it may sound, the best piece of advice is to “kill them with kindness”. It’s important to show everyone on the team that you are there for them, even when they get cranky, or angry, you want to let them know you can handle it, and gently push back, as necessary. It’s important to demonstrate trust and gain an understanding of where the other person is coming from. It’s easy to think “this person looks for conflict”, we have to dig deeper into ourselves and figure out why we have that perception and have a serious conversation with that person. There is a book entitled ‘Radical Candor’ (2019), which discusses giving feedback to your team members, which is often the biggest source of conflict. Sometimes giving feedback can be uncomfortable, especially when the feedback is about the member being disruptive – but these tough conversations help move the project forward. You need to ensure you are not attacking the member, but rather creating a safe space for them to talk about anything that may be going on. And sometimes those conversations do not work, and maybe the person truly is just looking for conflict, in which case you just have to move along, get through the project and ensure you protect your own mental health.

Question 5: What strategies have you found to be most effective when trying to increase teamwork and reduce team conflict?

Similar to what is stated above, it is important to be clear about roles and responsibilities. Even if you think you’re being clear, be clearer! Especially if you’re working on a new team. The team should come to a consensus on how they want to handle these rules – should they put it in writing? Have a casual conversation? Each team will have different preferences. It may also be beneficial to let the team get outside of the team environment, maybe go for dinner together, to help break the ice and get to know one another, clarify roles, and clarify expectations. This clarity will help reduce confusion, which will in turn reduce conflict. It’s also important to help create space for that healthy conflict that was also discussed above. Everyone should feel safe speaking out if they disagree before the project comes to completion. The team may be time-bound, so it’s important for everyone to know that they can’t continue to make changes. At some point, the project comes to a close, and all team members should be on the same page because everyone has had a chance to discuss.

Question 6: Do you employ different strategies when dealing with cross-departmental conflict than you would if the conflict was between members of the same department?

When dealing with members of your own team, it’s easier to have a tight knit group where you can let them know that you are always available for a call to talk through any issues. If someone is not clear about something, or if they’ve made a mistake, it’s easy to have that conversation and figure out how to move forward. Within a small team, it’s easier to have that sort of trust and let the members lean on you in tough times, when they are overworked. Whereas, in cross-departmental conflict, it might be tougher to have that same type of connection, but the approach would be similar – talk to the members, hear their concerns, do some root analysis to figure out what the problem is and where it is coming from. Ask lots of questions (the biggest part of problem-solving is understanding what the problem is)! As HR professionals, we should be that space for others to let them safely say what they want and help them refocus.

Question 7: When do you recommend involving a third party during conflict resolution?

When the relationship is broken, a mediator should get involved. If there is not trust between the parties, the conflict can become deeply personal and can get nasty. When there is no willingness to move forward, a third party must step in. This third party must have no motives other than to help the relationship move forward. Psychologically, most people want to win, the third party helps neutralize the situation and de-escalate the tension. Keep in mind, sometimes the answer will be that the relationship needs to end, and that is okay too.

Question 8: What do students in Human Resources need to do to continue to grow and learn in conflict resolution? Are there any resources on conflict resolution you can recommend for students or professionals to gain further knowledge?

To continue to grow, students should get their hands on quality resources. There is constantly new information, so students should be willing to continue to learn – you are never done learning! It’s also important to get some frameworks in your toolkit, and develop your own style of conflict resolution. Conflict will always exist, and sometimes the best way to learn how to deal with it is to experience it and get a sense of how to move forward, in your own way. As HR professionals, we’re here to help people move past the conflict, not to say one person is right and the other is wrong. However, keep in mind that your job is not to solve all conflicts – it’s just to help move people if they are stuck.

A great resource for students to get their hands on is a book called ‘Think Again’ by Adam Grant. Grant (2021) discusses how as humans, our natural inclination is to want to be right about everything, because being right is a safe place for us to be. However; the book challenges you to think about whether you actually know all of the information, think about how you are responding, and think about your perceptions. Any books that help challenge your preconceived notions can help move you to think about your behaviours and help with conflict resolution.