Managing Stakeholder Conflict: Prevention & Resolution

Stakeholder conflict can be a significant challenge for Agile teams. It can lead to costly delays, budget overruns and poor project outcomes. That’s why preventing these conflicts before they arise is important for any project manager. However, the reality of project work, which almost always involves other humans, is that conflict is sometimes unavoidable. In this article, we’ll share tips for preventing stakeholder conflict and resolving it, when necessary.

Effective Communication

Effective communication is vital in preventing stakeholder conflict. Disputes often occur due to poor or no communication (i.e. ignoring the situation). Project managers should be proactive in identifying and addressing stakeholder concerns. Establishing a clear and open communication channel with all stakeholders, ensuring that they are informed of project progress, changes and issues will help to prevent these conflicts from escalating and provide an opportunity for resolution before they derail the project’s progress.

Effective communication also includes being a good listener. Listening to the stakeholder and understanding things from their perspective is important to the success of the project and in gaining their trust. It shows you care and when the client feels that, it can keep situations from escalating, or at least delay an escalation, as they will want to reciprocate the trust back to you.

Set and Manage Expectations

Another critical element in preventing project stakeholder conflict is setting and managing expectations.  Expectations must be established on day one of the project. The project manager must understand the needs and expectations of stakeholders. Likewise, the stakeholders must understand the details of the project, its objectives, timeline and priorities that have been put in place for the delivery of a successful project. Project managers should ensure that stakeholders’ expectations are realistic and attainable, and they should clearly communicate this to them. Doing this regularly throughout the project’s lifecycle can help manage stakeholder expectations and prevent conflicts.

Focus on the Impacts of the Conflict

If a conflict does arise, one of the first steps to take is to define the information that needs to be communicated and responded to. Focus on what needs to be understood and manage to an appropriate level of detail. Be clear about what can make a difference and work towards taking action. The point of confronting conflict is doing something about it. You are trying to guide that response in a positive and meaningful direction.

Communicate and ensure the stakeholder appreciates what the conflict means. In defining the impacts, be sure to address these points:

  • How is the conflict observable? What behaviors or actions show up?
  • What is the impact of the conflict on the people?
  • What is the impact of the conflict on the project?
  • What is the impact of the conflict on the organization?

By doing this you are establishing priority and urgency in addressing the conflict. Without responding to the conflict, the consequence is that it will persist.

Define Options and a Path Forward

Explore what moving forward looks like – to the degree that doing so is possible. Being honest about what’s possible and what’s not is essential.

  • What are the potential conflict resolution options?
  • How viable are the options?
  • What are the criteria that constitute the most appropriate option?
  • Where you can do so, what do you recommend and why?
  • What are the first steps forward?

We may not know everything that’s necessary to resolve the conflict and resolution may not be achieved right away, but based on the knowledge that we do have, where can you start figuring things out?

Be Prepared for Pushback and Resistance

Confronting conflict is not exactly enjoyable, but being on the receiving end of the confrontation isn’t usually a comfortable experience, either. Stakeholders can push back and push back hard. Resistance can take several forms: defensiveness, deferral or disagreement. The underlying reasons for resistance have a common foundation: fear of vulnerability and lack of control or loss of control. Recognize when pushback and resistance occur and identify what needs to be done to address or alleviate it. Knowing your audience will help you identify possible responses to pushback and resistance that positively support your message. As long as this isn’t a performance-related conflict, lean on your team and brainstorm with them to help you figure out how to overcome potential resistance points.

Move On

Once a conflict has been addressed and resolved, leave it in the past. Bringing up or referring to prior disputes should be avoided. Deal with the issue and move on. Bringing up previous issues can open up old wounds and animosity that you worked hard to resolve.

Good stakeholder management is a vital skill for any project manager and it’s essential in delivering projects that meet stakeholders’ needs and expectations. That’s why it’s so important to prevent conflict when possible and effectively and efficiently address it when it isn’t.

About the Authors:

Heidi Jackson is a Principal Project Manager with 19+ years of IT project management and business analysis experience. Her passion is working with agile teams, bolstering their communication and collaboration to bring about digital transformations, architecture re-platforming, software development, hardware implementations and everything in between. Heidi loves the outdoors and goes camping at every opportunity she can get.

Chris Arnold is a Principal Project Manager for Sparq. He’s been in Project Management for 20+ years with a background of 15 years in Software Development. He’s worked in a variety of industries including State & Federal Government, Oil & Gas, Aerospace and Healthcare.

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