During a discussion recently a colleague and I were discussing situational leadership and how it might interface with project management.  Situational leadership as a concept, which was developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, is build on the premise that there is not single style of leadership.  The idea is that the individual leader has to tailor his/her style based on the situation that they may encounter.  Hersey and Blanchard categorize leadership styles into four behavior types:

  • “S1: Telling – is characterized by one-way communication in which the leader defines the roles of the individual or group and provides the what, how, why,when, and where to do the task
  • S4: Delegating – the leader is still involved in decisions; however, the process and responsibility has been passed to the individual or group. The leader stays involved to monitor progress.
  • S3: Participating – this is now shared decision making about aspects of how the task is accomplished and the leader is providing less task behaviors while maintaining high relationship behavior.
  • S2: Selling – while the leader is still providing the direction, he is now using two-way communication and providing the socioemotional support that will allow the individual or group being influenced to buy into the process.”

The concept indeed sounds interesting and may be related to the work that project managers undertake in directing and facilitating teams.  However, I’ve seen a few instances where the project manager or the functional manager mis-interpret the concept of situational leadership to mean that “sometimes I have to be nice and sometimes I have to be mean.”  They seem to advocate the concept of good cop/bad cop by trying to sometimes challenge employees while other times trying to comfort them.   The problem in this approach is that it often does not work.  Situational leadership is not about being nice or mean, but rather it is about how we can best motivate others based on “situation”.

When it comes to conflict I find that I’ve often struggled with how to best handle the situation in a manner that both allows me to address my concerns without jeopardizing the project.  This reminds me of a recent twitter by Tom Peters where he said “venting makes you feel better–and in 15 seconds can create an enemy who costs your project 6 months of delays.”  We forget sometimes when we confront others in a negative way that there is a negative impact on the project.

In order to develop a good approach in resolving conflict, we have to start by at least defining it. Wikipedia has the following definition of conflict:

“the actual or perceived opposition of values, needs, and interests.”

The key point that sticks out is the words actual or perceived.  Sometimes we don’t even know that there is a situation of conflict because we don’t perceive it as such while another party may see it this way.  Conflict on projects can be caused by:

  • Interdependence.  When one person or group is awaiting a deliverable from another and for some reason there is a delay or an issue which results in causing friction between parties
  • Style.  This is when one person has a certain way of doing things such as being a perfectionist, while another person has a different way of doing them.
  • Perspective.  This is related to perception and how we might interpret events and situation based on cultural differences or communication styles.
  • Leadership.  This has to do with our style of leadership where one team member may see themselves as a person who delegates while the other as a person who leads by example.
  • Personality.  This has to do with how the individuals are wired and how they react to each other emotionally.

The above items of course do not happen in isolation of project issues and stressors that cause project delays, budget overruns, and scope changes.  Furthermore, we must not forget other road blocks such as poor planning or management.  In this situation, there are several reactions that leaders may have to conflict and their need to resolve it.  These include:

  • Confronting.  Basically taking the problem head on and trying to work with the concerned parties in a direct way to resolve the issues.
  • Compromising.  Seeking ways where different parties can compromise to attempt to resolve the issue.
  • Smoothing.  Attempting to demonstrate that the differences are not huge and helping others to focus on other issues that maybe sources of agreement.
  • Forcing.  Basically mandating a solution by a party with greater power than the other parties.
  • Avoiding. Withdrawing from the situation so as not to continue the conflict.

Each of the above mentioned items has positives and drawbacks.  For example, avoiding is only a temporary measure that requires a different type of action later in the conflict.  By attempting to apply these strategies the project manager has to take into account the personalities of the parties involved along with the situation so as to not find themselves in an untenable position.

When it comes to projects, there are certain givens that we need to always plan for.  They include things such as changes to the plan, adjustments to the baseline, and conflict.  This certainly makes sense given the fact that project managers are trying to balance priorities and manage change within the organization.  If we embrace the idea that conflict will arise, then our plans have to take into account the need to introduce a systematic approach to resolving the conflict without having the project manager commit a kamikaze act and risk the whole project.