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Winning Project Management
Secrets - Revealed!


Conflict Resolution, Decision Making and Motivation

As project managers, these topics are near and dear to our hearts! Some of our biggest challenges revolve around resolving conflict, making good decisions and motivating our projects to success.

Super Ego

As humans we tend to overestimate our strengths and our control over outcomes. We get the superman or superwoman ego going and feel as if we can take on the world and bend others to our will. But in reality, we often must face different outcomes than we would like so that takes us into the difficult territory of disappointment and negotiation.

Our Memory Bias

As experienced humans living our lives, we know that we can and will remember things about our performances. The stronger the pain and conflict at the PEAK and at the END of the experience, the more we will remember that experience as negative. So, we have a built in mechanism that wants to "win" the conflict so when we retell the story later, we came out on top. You might think of this as the essence of stage fright. Those who succumb to stage fright often have an experience early on in their lives where they performed badly in front of a group. The thing that differentiates them from others is how the experience peaked and ended. Those with little stage fright later in life are the ones who don't let the situation peak and end on the negative note but struggle on to win the crowd back and end the situation with a win.

Our Memory Is Fallible

We simply don't remember everything and a lot of what we call memories is actually reconstruction. When we remember, our brains use some facts (actual perceptions such as sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch) from the actual event and also some emotions - how we felt at the time. We tend to fill in any blanks or missing (forgotten) information with imaginary bits that seem to make sense and build a cohesive recollection. The result is that without some impartial external evidence (video or audio recordings, a journal or diary, etc.) we really can't know for certain which part of a remembered event is actually real or made up.

Things that come to mind easily can warp your judgement. There are names for some things that come to mind easily:

  • vividness bias - something is flashy and eye catching sticks in the mind more easily and is more highly valued
  • recency bias - something in the recent past is more clear in our memories
  • winner bias - things seem more valuable when others we consider "winners" possess them
  • similarity judgements - the human mind is constantly classifying and stereotyping things it encounters.

If you want to reduce the power of these biases, you have to try to eliminate the classifications. You have to remove the smoke and mirrors that make the bias seem real and explain it away based on the face value. For example, "Picking the red sports car seems like the right decision only because it is flashy and vivid, not because it is in your long term best interest to own the 'Hello, Officer red' BMW." The more you reinforce the classifications of bias by selecting them time and time again, the harder it is to see them for what they are.

The other thing to do is slow down. Biases are a way of quickly ruling out choices. The mind is very quick to categorize problems so it can move on to other things. If you want to minimize the effect of bias, you need to slow things down so logic and new or true facts can prevail.

Not Reliable Decision Makers

The levels of glucose in the brain can strongly affect our decision making. When energy levels in the brain are low, we tend to fall back on default actions. Default actions are those which we have experience with and have worked for us in the past, or they are viewed as the least risky option. Only rarely is the default option the best choice.

Because energy levels vary in the brain, so does our ability to consider all the facts, options, courses of action and arrive at the best outcome. Reliability infers repeatability yet when we look back on decisions we have made, we often second guess ourselves wishing we had done things differently.

To make good decisions, we need to be in peak form, not tired, hungry and frazzled out. Try to make important decisions after a nutritious meal when you are well rested, and if you are involved in a negotiation, make sure the other side is in the same condition to arrive at the best outcome.

Risk Aversion

People typically give adverse events a lot more weight than positive events. We try in our minds to explain or even undo our worst experiences. This cognitive shortcut can undercut long term logic. Being risk averse as a Neanderthal may have had significant consequences for survival, but in modern life it can get in the way of considering all possible outcomes and making the best decision.

Here are some risk perception categories to consider:

  • Control - the more control we think we have, the less frightening a risk will feel
  • Dread - the more pain and suffering a risk has, the scarier it will feel
  • Natural or Human Made - things which seem to come from nature seem less risky even if that isn't true (solar radiation, poisonous mushrooms or plants, etc. can kill you just as dead as the man made versions and often the man made version originally came from the natural world anyway)
  • Personification - a risk with a name and a face seems to affect us more powerfully than a statistical risk
  • Catastrophic Risks - lots of harm from one large event worries us more than chronic risks spread out over space and time
  • Imposed Risk - risks we are forced to take seem worse than risks we voluntarily take
  • Immediate Risks - scare us more than risks that may be much larger but further away in time or space

The Hawk Prevails (Short term)

Humans have a deep seated bias that reinforce a hawkish approach to conflicts. In the run up to a conflict there is a tendency to overestimate the evil or aggressive intention of one's adversary. We tend to employ black and white thinking which infects the whole group (group think). This is an effective way to get everybody on one side but rarely results in the best outcome for the situation over the long term.

Choice Architecture

The environment in which people make a decision has a large outcome effect on the decision. The way the choices are presented can affect the outcome. For example allowing someone to opt in versus forcing them to opt out favors the outcome. If you want someone to have a healthy lunch, make that the default option and force them to opt out for something less healthy. You can lead people to make choices that are good for them just by presenting it properly. People don't make clean, clear decisions between things, they make decisions based on descriptions of things so how you describe the choice is very important.


Humans are overly reluctant to make concessions. A concession given to you by me is seen as a loss to me and there's a lot of research suggesting that losses are weighted at least twice as much as gains. The other side is thinking and feeling the same way. So, not budging on concessions can lead to a stale mate, not due to actual losses, but due to the perception of such losses to each party giving something up.

It is often useful to have some concessions ready to go that you don't mind "throwing away" as a sign of good will to the other party. Take advantage of the psychology of game theory and give a few painless concessions the other side will perceive as wins.

Gamblers at Heart

There is another reason people are reluctant to make concessions. When faced with a choice between two bad options - one is cutting your losses and the other is doubling down to take a gamble that may somehow save you - most will gamble. If you are looking at a potential loss in a conflict, this is precisely the situation you find yourself in. Should I accept the loss or stay in the conflict to keep hope alive that I will somehow come out a winner?

History and the great literature of mankind is full of just such stories where the hero doubles down against all odds and somehow snatches victory from the jaws of defeat just through incredible perseverance or hanging in the game long enough for reinforcements to arrive. So, gambling on the outcome one might say is hard wired into our brains. What the story books don't cover is the relatively much larger share of the times doubling down doesn't work and results in an even worse outcome than just accepting the original concessions and moving on.


Once a metric is associated with an outcome in our minds, we unconsciously measure our progress against that value. This value can be real or completely made up. Skilled negotiators and sales people will often show us the highest priced option first to get us to compare what we really want in terms of the best that is available. You can use this technique in numerous ways when resolving conflict, motivating others or to get a decision to turn out the way you hope.


Many of us are bound by a code of ethics through our professional organization or by a code of conduct prepared by our employers. Even if none of these apply to you, there is usually a moral high ground or personal benefit to being known as a moral and ethical decision maker. When faced with a tough decision, consult your code of ethics or code of conduct to see if the situation is addressed. You may find that others have faced such a decision in the past and have come up with a way to resolve the problem that is both ethical and satisfactory to all parties.

Into Action

So, what does this mean for us when it is time to resolve conflict, make a decision (which is at the heart of both parties trying to resolve a conflict) or motivate others (convince them to make the decision to help our cause)?

  • work towards the win-win so none of the parties encodes the negative memory of loss or bad peak experience
  • be on the hawkish team if you want to get people behind you but recognize that this is often not the best side to be on long term
  • don't force the other side to double down on their position due to a perceived eminent loss
  • anchor the outcome you want to a metric either higher or lower than you really want it to be
  • frame the choices to favor the outcome you want
  • don't allow snap decisions - force the parties to slow down and get into logical thinking rather than stereotyping
  • if something seems risky to a key decision maker, take pains to show how the risk can be eliminated, mitigated or managed
  • be the first one to make concessions because you know in reality that they aren't the double whammy they feel like
  • don't over estimate your strengths
  • know that your memory isn't perfect so you need to rely on external facts when they are available
  • understand that people are complex and no one person is either totally good or totally bad
  • consider your ethical obligations to do the right thing.

No doubt conflict negotiation, decision making, and motivation are more art than science. I hope these bits of insight into the human condition have made it easier for you to accomplish your goals the next time you are faced with the opportunity to mediate a dispute, make an important decision or motivate your talent or team.

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