Managing Priority Conflicts for Productive Results

“My priorities are the most important. That’s why my way is only one that will work!”

Priority conflicts are an essential and a routine part of doing business. The key is to resolve these conflicts efficiently in order to get the most benefit. Unfortunately, the resolution is often unpleasant. However, an individual with some skill and initiative can make a huge difference in managing the resolution.

People’s perspectives are based both on their understanding and priorities. Since each person has a different role and focus in the organization, priorities conflict. Sometimes, it is difficult to resolve these conflicts so that activities can proceed. Consider the example below:

In a business, the production people must make the product efficiently. The Quality department must determine if the product is acceptable. The two groups must agree on the compromise point of production efficiency and quality.

Often, there is no obvious criteria to determine the compromise point. Frustration develops. Emotions begin to flare. Cooperation drops off. Positions harden. Supervisors are called. A big meeting to “settle” the issue is scheduled. The meeting room is filled with tension. Positions are dogmatically stated. The discussion becomes a test of wills with the strongest finally dominating. Usually, it is not the best solution. Further, there are winners, losers, and payback at a later time.

These scenarios play out every day. However, a skilled individual can make a dramatic difference in both the outcome and the way that people work together. There are three steps:

1. Understand and Defuse the Situation

2. Build an Outline of the Resolution in Stages

3. Confirm Agreement


1. Understand and Defuse the Situation

The most critical step is to dispassionately understand the situation from all perspectives. The best way to understand the situation is to speak individually with each of the key people in an understated way.

Listen to positions contrary to your own opinion without comment or criticism. (This is a real skill!)

If possible, the conversation should be held in their office. People respect that someone else made the effort to visit them.

Avoid e-mail exchanges. Complex problems do not get resolved by e-mail.

Set the tone. Most people can not focus on listening to others until after they have spoken. Accommodate this. On occasions where emotions have festered, time to vent these emotions may be needed. Again, this is approached in a listening mode which does not feed into the negative energy being released. After people calm down and have an element of trust, you can get a better understanding of what is essential and what is negotiable

Find areas of agreement. In such conflicts, the disagreements are of such high visibility that they completely dominate the view. By identifying areas of agreement, perspectives are clarified. The conflicting areas appear more manageable. When people see that there is general agreement in many other areas, there is more confidence that the remaining problems can be resolved.

Emphasize that this is an exploratory conversation. Positions are open to explore what is really essential, without concern that these are actual proposals. It is important that opinions do not harden at this time.

Listen for consequences. In order to understand what they are communicating, it is necessary to use the content and be aware of the consequences of what they are saying. (Reference Post: Listening for Consequences

2. Build an Outline of the Resolution in Stages.

The solution will not be one of the original suggestions, but must be teased out of the understanding obtained in the first step. This is a process involving thinking, making proposals, obtaining feedback, and making revisions.

First, there are bits and pieces information from the earlier discussions to be reviewed. Look at the edges where people expressed positions that were more flexible to begin to craft a proposal. Start with what is negotiable for each group and build what you can. Put aside your first ideas to stretch the thinking and keep the ideas from hardening too soon.

Take an outline of a proposed solution back to a key individual for discussion. Emphasize that it is a hypothesis to be developed. It is essential to have their input at several stages during the construction of the solution.
Test the elements with questions such as:

Will this approach work?

What changes in your position be made to become acceptable?

Encourage suggestions.

Once people realize that they are not going to be railroaded, positions soften and possibilities for concessions and compromises increase rather surprisingly.

Incorporate appropriate revisions, especially concessions and take the new information to another individual to continue building an acceptable approach.

The objective is an informal general agreement for addressing the conflict of the key areas. Hold discussion on details for the next step.

3. Confirm Agreement.

After an informal agreement has been obtained with the individuals, schedule a meeting the different individuals or groups represented. The meeting is essentially to obtain an informal consensus that the proposed solution is acceptable. A group discussion is needed to confirm that the approach is understood and accepted by the group.

This meeting is significantly different from the meeting in the above production/quality example that was called to try to solve the problem–without having spent the effort to develop a foundation.

(A written agenda is useful as a tool to focus the discussion on the important points. Reference Post: Disrupting the Cycle of Inefficient Meetings)

An informal consensus is all that is needed by the group. Details, which are important but do not change the decision, can be worked out by selected individuals as follow-up actions. Participants will generally be satisfied with both the resolution of the priorities and the process to settle the conflict.


In summary, priority conflicts are a normal part of business. Conflicts often lead to disruption. However, taking the time to understand and build a consensus with the individuals can lead to a productive resolution.


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