Conflict Resolution in Project Management

conflict-robotIn the day-to-day interactions of virtually anyone in the modern world, there will invariably be conflicts that one needs to contend with. The corporate space is no different and members working on the same team to achieve the same goal don’t always have ideas that stay in sync. Differences will arise and while most of those can be dealt with easily and professionally, there will be times where team members cannot resolve their problems as quickly as one would have hoped.

Conflicts themselves can manifest at virtually any level in a corporation. From the lower teams of the corporate structure to the highest parts of the executive ranks, differences of opinion can and do appear, mostly as a result of a disagreement on design or strategy or due to competing objectives.

Because he/she is the de facto project leader, the project manager may find themselves in situations that will require intervention if a conflict between team members has arisen. Having some understanding of how to deal with these situations is an invaluable part of the project manager’s skill set.

Why Do Conflicts Occur?

As indicated, conflicts can manifest at any time during a project cycle. They can in many cases also be the result of carry-over from other projects or initiatives within a company that involved similar members of the project team. While conflicts can be emotional in nature, in most cases and from a project manager perspective, they will be intertwined with the project itself and its deliverable.

For the purposes of our analysis, conflicts can be itemized as follows:

  • Resourcing issues and disagreements
  • Arguments regarding equipment, specific facilities or software selections
  • General costs and project expenditures
  • Technical and design disagreements
  • Differences of opinion on prioritization
  • Lack of consensus on unified process methodologies
  • Disagreements on the schedule or timeline
  • Lack of agreement on key responsibilities
  • General personality clashes and arguments

Some items above can be broken down into further granular conflict types but for the purposes of this article, the aforementioned list will be the primary reference.

What Kind of Conflict Environments Exist?

In many cases, conflicts can often have their catalyst in specific environments that manifest within a company. While not always a primary factor, how things are organized, the culture of the company or the types of individuals interacting can all contribute to an environment that can cause conflicts to arise in more frequency. Additionally, the project manager may also be unwittingly contributing to an environment of conflict through their own actions, whether intentional or not. Being late for their own meetings, constantly changing the schedule or scope and being unresponsive to issues can cause seemingly trivial problems to fester and then boil over into much larger conflicts.

From the standpoint of the project manager, you will not have the capability to address all conflict environments. Specific attributes to the way your company performs business will likely be out of your hands. However, within the realm of your own project, ensuring you foster an environment of open communication and professional idealism will go a long way to making the team more comfortable working together and with you.

Techniques to Manage Conflict

Any good project manager will likely recognize that conflicts are inevitable. Regardless of how effective you are at your job, you don’t have mind control capabilities or full control of the environment. As such, it is always important to be vigilant to spot conflicts early and also have a plan in place to deal with the conflicts that arise.

How one approaches a conflict and deals with it is often predicated by the type of conflict in question. There are some initial steps a project manager should take at the offset:

  • Study the problem/conflict and collect any information possible
  • Leverage a conflict resolution process (if it exists or is provided by your HR department)
  • Ensure you have set the appropriate atmosphere within your team

Once the conflict is categorized and the project manager has some data to work worth, they can approach the problem strategically. Note that for conflicts, there will be a fair amount of flair that one may need to resolve them. It can’t be an entirely analytical exercise or set of concrete steps; the project manager’s personality traits will play a strong factor in how well the conflict management process moves forward

The important aspect of any conflict technique is that it should be done in haste. Conflicts generally brew over some time and attempting to resolve them rapidly or without thought is a sure-fire way to actually exacerbate the conflict and potentially introduce further animosity between the team members and the project manager themselves.

Specific Conflict Resolution Strategies

Now that the conflict is categorized and understood (at least better than before), the project manager can look at some of the various ways one may look at resolving the problem. The ways of dealing with a conflict are not all created equal and many of the concepts can actually lead to more problems. In the interest of thoroughness, all conflict resolution strategies will be listed and the pros and cons of each strategy outlined.

Forcing

This is also referred to as ‘competing’. Essentially, this is when one party pursues his/her own concerns despite the resistance of another person. In most cases, this will involve pushing one viewpoint or idea at the expense of another. From a project management standpoint, this may arise if two team members disagree on a specific design for a feature in the deliverable.

While it may seem somewhat unprofessional, there are times when forcing may be the only option. A good example would be a team member pushing an agenda or design choice that is inconsistent with the strategy of the company moving forward. In those situations, despite the objections of the individual, there may be no alternative other than to make a unilateral decision in order to get the project to move forward.

   Pros

  • Can provide a quick resolution to the conflict in question
  • Can increase the authority or self-esteem of the individual who asserts dominance

   Cons

  • Can cause new conflicts or animosity with individual whose idea was usurped
  • Can cause the opposing individual to similarly assert their perceived authority, further escalating the situation
  • May lead to uncomfortable or even angry exchanges

For the most part, the Forcing method should probably be considered a last resort and should only be attempted if all other avenues of conflict resolution are exhausted.

Collaboration

This is also often viewed as the problem solving concept. This generally occurs in conditions where the conflict may be more passive and the opposing parties are not necessarily married to their ideas but are uncertain of the best approach to take. Both bring valid points to the table and as such, both work together to come to an agreement on a new idea that is a compendium of both their views. Essentially, a collaborative conflict resolution approach would result in a mutual agreement that is to the satisfaction of all parties involved.

   Pros

  • Is unlikely to lead to further conflicts downstream as the opposing parties have come to a mutual agreement
  • The outcome is that the problem is solved
  • Will result in a better mutual trust relationship between team members
  • Will re-enforce the project team collaborative climate
  • Project manager will gain respect for being an effective diplomat

   Cons

  • The involved parties will need to have some level of commitment to solving the problem
  • Requires more effort and time for the solution to be had
  • May cause some trust issues if one of the parties involved feels their opponent acquiesced too readily

Compromising

While similar to collaborating, compromising involves getting two parties who are in a disagreement to come to some mutually satisfactory solution. The primary difference here is that compromise involves giving in on specific ideas or suggestions to move things forward. (Collaboration is more about taking both sets of ideas and using all dialog to find a new solution based off those ideas)

A compromise will generally be most appropriate in situations that don’t involve complex issues. It may be a simple discussion on which items should be used and which should be discarded. In a compromise, each party will have to give up some of their item suggestions to get to a final agreement on the selection.

   Pros

  • Is generally a relatively quick technique that will be helpful if time is an issue
  • Can be a temporary ‘stop-gap’ before a better collaborative solution is attempted
  • Generally less confrontational

   Cons

  • Parties involved may leave the negotiation feel unsatisfied if they assume they have given in too much
  • Is not always the most advantageous to building good relationships between team members
  • Requires some level of follow-up to ensure anything agreed upon is being executed as per original discussions

Withdrawing

For all intensive purposes, withdrawing essentially means avoiding the conflict all together. While it may seem like surrender to some, for certain cases of expediency, it is sometimes an effective strategy depending on the situation. Certain cases where the item being debated is just deemed too trivial or if there are other matters that take priority, dodging a conflict near-term may be appropriate.

   Pros

  • The argument has become heated, necessitating the need to withdraw temporarily to avoid further tension
  • Reduces general stress for the parties involved
  • Allows for prioritization of other tasks that have more immediate concern
  • Allows for more investigation into the issue to better prepare for revisiting the issue later

   Cons

  • May result in loss of respectability
  • May be viewed by opposing individual as agreement to their viewpoint
  • May cause tensions in relationships with peers if approach is used too frequently

Smoothing

In some circles, this is also known as accommodating. Essentially, this technique entails dealing with the concerns of other individuals first before addressing your own. Smoothing often works in situations where one side has less of a vested interest in the situation than the other. For example, two engineers working on a problem in a target space that is normally the domain of one of those engineers. He/she may have a stronger opinion over particular design choices in that space and as such, the other engineer will defer to that person’s opinion since that domain space is not of vital concern to them. Also, this technique is employed when one party to the discussion realizes they were wrong and decides to acquiesce.

   Pros

  • Will allow individual to focus and protect other areas while deferring to other ones deemed less important
  • Can lead to improved relationship with peer if deferring to their judgement

   Cons

  • One party may take advantage of the other if you gain a reputation for being too accommodating (excessive appeasement)
  • May result in loss of confidence, especially in dealing with individuals who have a tendency to be more aggressive or boisterous
  • Some individuals may actually react negatives to your attempt at smoothing, feeling you are being too maternal or condescending

**Conclusion**

Conflicts are a part of every day life. The level and severity of conflicts depend on the nature of the work, the type of people involved, the environment of the company, and so forth. How to deal with conflicts is an essential attribute of any project manager, especially in their day-to-day task of interacting with various individuals regularly. How to address these conflicts, deal with the parties involved, come to a resolution and move on is an important part of the project managers skill set. Conflicts that go un-noticed or unresolved for extended periods can negatively affect the outcome of the project.