An effective public works manager...resolves conflict

Susan M. Hann, P.E., AICP
Deputy City Manager
City of Palm Bay, Florida
Chair, APWA Leadership and Management Committee

Note: The APWA Leadership and Management Committee recently concluded its series of articles on public works leadership entitled "The Baker's Dozen." However, now that we've finished the first thirteen derived from our initial survey, the committee decided to develop others from that source which lend themselves to those who may see themselves more as "managers" than "leaders." This series of articles—proclaimed "The Baker's Menu"—will give you a taste for supplemental leadership and especially management skills. If you have some suggestions as to management traits that should be included on the menu, please let us know.

As a public works manager, you are tasked with "getting the job done." However, the path to completing "the job" is often potholed with conflict. Your role is to move your team past conflict in order to accomplish the mission.

Through the course of your professional life, you will be faced with a variety of conflicts. These may include personal conflicts—such as ethical dilemmas, or conflicts among team members, or conflicts between team members and outside agencies or the public. Some days you feel as if you need a black and white striped shirt and a loud whistle. And, wouldn't it be nice if you could occasionally "throw someone out of the game." Well, the reality is that as a manager, you must professionally address and resolve conflicts.

A key aspect of resolving conflict is anticipating conflict. As a manager, you can often see conflict coming on the horizon. When you perceive that conflict is brewing or conflict is probable, take the time to mediate before the conflict escalates. As a busy professional, it is often easier to "look the other way" and hope that the conflict resolves itself. Sometimes that happens. But, most times, it just gets worse. So, be proactive.

Frequently, conflict is avoided simply by improved communication. For example, a brief weekly staff meeting or project meeting can often identify potential conflict points early and allow you the opportunity to address them before they impact the project or the organization. On many of our key projects, we schedule a weekly 15-minute conference call with the key players (consultants, contractors and staff). We do a quick check on progress and make sure everyone has what they need to continue moving forward. We make a list of any action items and conclude the meeting. This small investment of time completely avoids conflicts created by "I thought you were going to do that!" Even if this does occur, all we've lost is a week. So, frequent, focused communication is a great investment of time to avoid future conflict.

Although e-mail is a great communication tool and allows you to pass on work and responsibility, actually speaking to each other and occasional face-to-face communication is essential to minimizing conflicts. Body language and voice intonations are subtle communications tools that every manager should learn to read. In fact, in key conflict situations, such as disciplinary actions or counseling, you should always handle these in person. No one wants to be yelled at by your computer and each time you avoid personal contact, your credibility as a manager is reduced, as you will be seen as either weak or too busy to care or both. Also, face-to-face communications, especially when no conflict is present, helps to build relationships and trust that will help you to work through future conflicts.

Think about your own propensity for conflict. You are less likely to engage in aggressive behavior with someone you know and consider a respected colleague. Again, building strong relationships develops trust, which minimizes conflict. If you build a good foundation of professional relationships, you are already lessening the frequency and magnitude of conflicts you will encounter.

Now that you've done all you can to reduce conflict, how do you deal with the conflict that does come your way? There really is no "one size fits all" conflict resolution technique. Often, you are the mediator and must judge how to best handle the conflict at hand. Things you should consider include:

  • Is this a one-time situation, or am I setting a precedent?
  • What is the underlying source of the conflict (technical dispute, personality, politics, misunderstanding)?
  • What are the emotions attached to this conflict (anger, fear, jealousy)?
  • Is there a range of solutions that we can negotiate?
  • Is there anything in my behavior that is creating or encouraging this conflict?

I occasionally meet managers who like to create conflict and chaos just to see what happens or for some other reason that escapes my understanding. I have heard the theory that managing by creating conflict inspires employees to outdo each other. Well, that works well if you only need one winner on your team. Otherwise, you have completely discouraged a team dynamic. Yes, you may weed out lesser players, but a team needs players with different strengths. In addition, this type of management, especially in a government context, can cause employees to become ostriches—keeping their heads down and not moving. Conflict avoidance by inaction is stifling to an organization and will cause your innovative employees to look elsewhere.

I also see managers who talk tough but lack follow-through. These managers leave themselves wide open for a variety of "testing" behaviors. Think of the toddler who continuously disobeys mom to see what happens. If there are no consequences, the undesirable behavior will continue. Similarly in a management context, if your staff (or even your own management) tests you, how you respond will set the stage for perhaps the balance of your career with that agency or group of people. Over time, your staff (and your management) will develop a sense for how you will react in conflicting situations. This is an opportunity, for better or worse, to define your management style.

Consistency is a key component of conflict resolution and may also help you to minimize potential conflicts. If your staff is confident in how you will respond to a certain type of conflict, then they may decide to handle it on their own rather than bring it to you. Consistency is also critically important with disciplinary actions. Although circumstances may vary, you should strive to act in a manner that will allow your staff to be able to clearly understand the reasons for your actions, even if they don't completely agree.

As a manager, you often have no choice but to mediate conflict. Although there are numerous resources that can help you develop mediation and negotiation techniques, I would also offer a simplistic view: be fair and be reasonable. In the public works arena, you and the public works staff are frequently mediators of a variety of issues. As examples, a developer may want you to consider an alternative paving method or two of your engineers disagree on the optimum signal timing or nearby homeowners aren't pleased with a road widening project. All of these situations require you to try to reach a fair and reasonable compromise. This is easier if you have already built a reputation for fair and reasonable actions, so make sure you are consistently acting fairly and reasonably—even in the smallest of situations.

Resolving these types of conflicts typically requires you to engage your best listening skills. Determine what is really important to those in conflict. Find middle ground. Try to diffuse emotional reactions. Respect all involved. Sometimes, it is also appropriate to send the conflicting parties back to the negotiating table to work out their conflict without your intervention. If you are too willing to resolve every conflict, your staff will find it easier to come to you rather than to work it out themselves. Choose opportunities to exercise leadership and encourage your staff to learn to resolve conflicts without you. Teaching and training your staff to understand the parameters of their authority to make decisions and resolve conflicts is an essential aspect of public works management and staff development.

So, how does all of this relate to "The Baker's Dozen: Core Competencies for Public Works Leaders"? Conflict resolution requires many of these traits including communication skills, delegation skills, empowerment skills, decisiveness, technical competency, accountability, respect for others, integrity and resiliency. As a manager, you will be faced with conflicts you must resolve; how you resolve these conflicts will reflect upon your leadership skills. Conflicts are opportunities for professional growth. Practice your leadership skills when the conflicts are small and of modest importance, so that you are ready to face with confidence those more challenging conflicts. Also, remember that resolving conflict is a step towards progress. As difficult as it may be to deal with conflict, the resolution of conflict is always a liberating feeling!

"Difficulties are meant to rouse, not discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict." - William Ellery Channing

"You can't shake hands with a clenched fist." - Indira Gandhi

"Truth springs from argument amongst friends." - David Hume

Sue Hann can be reached at (321) 952-3413 or at

Core Competencies at a Glance

  • Encourages Team Building
  • Involves Others
  • Possesses Oral/Written Skills
  • Builds Trust/Respect
  • Prioritizes
  • Sets Realistic Goals
  • Helps Others to Succeed
  • Resolves Conflict
  • Manages Time
  • Manages Workload
  • Develops Staff
  • Anticipates Future Needs
  • Is Flexible