Updated: Jan 14, 2019
Projects rarely go smoothly and sometimes the bumps on the road are bigger than you expected. Budget constraints, scope changes, time pressures and unforeseen problems can test relationships to breaking point. The breadth of people you typically have to deal with as a Project Manager also means that you can get caught between conflicting interests and point of views. A relationship that turns sour on a project can mean the end of it (sometimes the end of you), or at the very least turn your project into a very unpleasant experience.
So if you experience conflict with one of your stakeholders, particularly one high on your VIPs list like your project sponsor, how do you go and mend that bridge?
1) Get some perspective
Take a step back and look at the problem within the big picture. If you are not sure you can take that objective view, talk it through with someone (a friend, a mentor or a peer) who’s not involved: they don’t necessarily have the answer, but talking the problem through with someone will help you get clearer on what is wrong, how bad it is from your perspective and what you need to do about it.
2) Don’t make assumptions
Now regardless of how you feel about the conflict, don’t assume it is the same for the other party. You may think the situation is awful and things couldn’t get worse, or at the other end of the spectrum believe that there is nothing to worry about (by the way, not being aware your sponsor is not happy with you or your project is your worst case scenario). Most of the time things are not as bad as you think they are, but don’t assume you know how someone else feels and second-guess what matters to them.
3) Do something about it
Whatever happens, don’t let things stew hoping they will go away by themselves. In some cases they might, but why take a chance? It’s better to be seen as someone who acknowledges there is a problem and tries to fix it, than someone who’s unable (or unwilling) to show sensitivity to others’ feelings.
If you fell out with your sponsor, talk to her. Now.
4) Be humble and honest
Once you get to talk to your sponsor, you may find out that she is actually not that bothered about it, or that she is, but she’s the only one who can tell you. Acknowledge how she feels and tell her your perspective. Ask her what you can do about it and how you can work together to mend that bridge. It takes two to build or repair a relationship, and it’s OK to be the one holding out your hand first. Don’t get stuck into trying to prove who’s right or wrong; think about the end goal: rebuilding trust and respect with your sponsor. It’s not about giving up your principles, it’s about casting unnecessary pride aside for the greater good.
Life’s too short to hold grudges. You can always agree to disagree, move on and focus on getting that project done.
Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude - William James