PMI Belgium

Conflict management - The appearances of conflicts by Michaël De Bruyne

A Member talks to the members

Author: Michaël De Bruyne is a trainer/consultant and trains leaders of public and private organisations in their performance management, team management and conflict management. 

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Dressed to kill: The appearances of conflicts

Conflicts in (project) teams can occur in many ways.

Conflict unsplashTeam members may disagree on content level, on the way of working, disagree with each others’ roles and tasks, the lack of strategy or clear targets, etc.  Discussions occur and may create frustrations, but no harm done: the frustrations are authentic and pure. A PM might even consider these frustrations as signs of commitment.

If, however, the PM does not focus properly upon these frustrations, conflicts may become more personal and subjective rather than objective.  The authenticity of frustrations is being replaced by a instrumental aggressiveness: an unsatisfied team member uses verbal/non-verbal weapons (interruptions, insults, refusals, rejections, …) to put pressure upon the PM. Authentic frustrations are being replaced by language instruments in order to get something from the PM.

Finally, conflicts can turn into a conflict of interests, when a team member only considers his own interests, advantages, profits rather than the team interests. These types of conflicts are more difficult to handle as long as the members with conflicting interests hide their agendas…. Resistances are masked, unspoken, invisible and yet growing …

OK, shit happens, then what?

A PM should listen actively to frustrations: what is it exactly that irritates someone and where does it come from? A conflict on one level may cover another conflict on another level.  A colleague can disagree with decisions of the board (company level), or just not feeling well with certain departments (interteam level), or being distracted by the way his own team works (intrateam level), or by the leadership style of the PM, or another colleague (interpersonal level) and finally, every frustration can also by a symptom of an intrapersonal conflict (demotivation, stress, problems at home).  

That’s why a PM should be more process-oriented during team meetings.  A PM’s communication should focus on four axes:

  1. Content: What are we talking about: facts, figures, objectivity
  2. Proceeding: How are we talking about it: who interrupts, who talks too much, who is multi-tasking during meetings, do we manage time efficiently?
  3. Relations: How do we treat each other:  do we make a distinction between feedback and criticism? Are we giving feedback based on facts and factual solutions or are we simply demolishing ones point of view? Who is hiding (silence is just a disguise)? Who imposes? Who always agrees even with opposite point of views?
  4. Emotions: How are we dealing with emotions?  Do we show empathy for others’ frustrations? That might help the owner to calm down before he is able to reconcile. One cannot convince someone as long as emotions are blocking the rational insights. 

A PM must get in contact with the owners and their potential conflicts on all levels before conflicts start living their own lives. If a PM does not invest in conflict management, he will have no real connection with his members; conversations will become fake and superficial.

A PM needs contact and connection in order to have impact.

If a PM fails in his communication, his feedback and his control on group dynamics, then team members start looking for coalitions related to their resistances. Once coalitions are being installed, people feel strengthened to tackle opposite coalitions. Politics come into play which are deadly for a project, killing it softly.


A manager of a small local post office had difficulties to integrate a young graduate who was recruited by the HR-department of the main headquarter. Symptoms of conflicts occurred: the graduate refused to work at the client’s window counter, did not do his share for the Saturday morning shifts, was not popular in the eyes of the far more experienced ladies at the counter….

After some individual coaching’s with the employee, different conflicts turned out.

  • The employee had a clear view on modernizing the post office with financial products; but his work at the counter, selling stamps, was not part of it ( frustration conflict on organisational level)
  • His local manager had no leadership skills and only tried to maintain the comfort zone of colleagues and clients: traditional service, no change management. He admitted that he considered the young graduate as a future treat for his own chair. The graduates’ irritations, originally pure content frustrations, turned more and more into a relational conflict with his manager with different interests.
  • The graduate was aware that the local manager and the three ladies at the counter exchanged their opinions on him behind his back. Coalitions were established (interpersonal conflict)
  • The employee had applied successfully for a marketing job where he could launch the post office on social media, but was sent to an office ” just to learn the job”-since then, HR had not contacted him anymore. He felt abandoned by HR (inter-team conflict)
  • The absence of the graduate on Saturday mornings was merely for personal reasons (assisting his old mother requiring help – an intrapersonal problem on top of the rest)

Once all these problems were unveiled, the local manager asked the graduate “Why didn’t you say so”? The graduate replied, “cause you never asked me to”.

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