Conflict Management strategies

Narinder Sharma

I wish to talk to you about conflict management in the project environment. An older view of project management states conflicts are bad and evil, this leads to lower productivity and a drop in morale. Thus conflicts must be avoided and should not be allowed. However, on the contrary, the new view on conflict and its management is quite the opposite to it. PMBOK views conflicts as inevitable in any project environment and can happen due to various reasons that may include scheduling, priorities and personal working style. Today I will discuss – sources/causes of the conflict, conflict management approaches and what a project manager should do to reduce friction & negative conflicts. The point here is to remember – there will always be some differences of opinion, which may cause conflicts. However, it is also important to remember conflicts can be a sign of a healthy environment and an indication that the team is more invested in the project. This can lead to positive outcomes when dealt with properly. On the other hand, if conflicts are improperly managed/channelled can become a liability Team can lose trust and ability to work for common project goals.

Conflict Management is important

So without further ado, let’s first talk about the core source of conflict. According to the PMBOK guide, there are seven core sources of conflicts, in order of their priority:

1) Schedule
2) Project Priorities
3) Resources
4) Technical opinion
5) Administrative procedures
6) Cost
7) Personality

Did you notice cost is not the major reason for conflicts (listed above), whereas schedule, project priorities and resources are the three most common reasons for conflicts within the project environments?

It’s not entirely up to the project manager alone to manage conflicts within the team, and conflicts can be better resolved by the people who are involved in the conflict. It is the project manager’s responsibility to keep the team informed about:
• Project Charter
• Project Changes
• Key Decisions
• Project Status
and reduce the level of conflict & friction.

Conflict Management Techniques

In a situation where conflict does occur, the project manager can make use of various conflict management techniques that include:
1) Collaborating Or Problem Solving
2) Compromising OR Reconciling
3) Withdrawal OR Avoidance
4) Smoothing OR Accommodating
5) Forcing Or Directing

Collaborating OR Problem Solving technique

In this technique, all involved parties discuss their differences openly, and multiple viewpoints are considered. When this is necessary, conflict management should be private and only involve those directly impacted and/or directly involved in the conflict. Taking into account different viewpoints and grievances of parties involved to obtain the output that works for everyone. These problem-solving discussions lead to consensus and thus a Win-Win situation for the betterment of the project & team. Often this is considered the Best Choice for resolving the conflict.

Compromising OR Reconciling technique

In this technique, each party gets some level of satisfaction, but no party gets everything. When we try to compromise, we aim for a solution that generally pleases everyone. It is very likely no one will get all they want but will have enough gains to feel satisfied with the outcome. Although it usually leads to a Lose-Lose situation, it is the second best choice for collaborating/ problem-solving. In this reconciliation technique, everyone loses to some extent, but the team makes overall progress and gains from it.

Withdrawal OR Avoidance technique

This is usually not the best choice for resolving the conflict because the problem still remains. The involved parties postpone the decision, and/or no decision is reached. It may sound awful to back down, postpone or avoid the problem, however, at times, this could be the best possible solution for everyone. This technique may be useful when conflicts have the propensity to resolve themselves or not enough information is available to decide at this point in time.

Smoothing OR Accommodating technique

In this technique, we aim to strike a compromise and keep a great relationship with other parties. The emphasis is on areas of agreement between the parties rather than discussing the problems and conflict. This method is ineffective in solving conflict since the problem areas are not discussed.

Forcing OR Directing technique

This technique forces one viewpoint onto another, and it usually leads to a Win-Lose Situation. The project manager uses his authority to impose a decision on the project team.

The project manager’s success depends greatly on his ability to manage and resolve conflicts. These techniques are somewhat like swiss army knives, and one needs to use them most appropriate to the situation at hand. A successful project manager uses these techniques effectively to bring out the best of the team and deliver the project. Factors that influence conflict resolution methods include:

  • Relative importance and intensity of the conflict,
  • Time pressure for resolving the conflict,
  • The position was taken by persons involved, and
  • Motivation to resolve conflict on a long-term or a short-term basis.

Finally, a good mix of interpersonal skills (personal, technical and conceptual) is also helpful to succeed as a project manager, which will be a topic for another blog post.