Project management: Tips for conflict resolution

By: Krystle Hernandez
22 February, 2010

Every individual is unique. Because of differing personalities, opinions, or points of view, conflict between human beings is virtually inevitable. As a project manager, you should be fully aware of the high probability that you, or your teammates, will encounter some form of conflict during the life cycle of your project.

There are various reasons why conflict occurs, but within teams assigned to business projects, the most frequent causes of conflict include competition, disagreements about role requirements, work activities, individual approaches, and communication breakdowns.

Fortunately, project managers skilled in the art of conflict management, will easily draw from their experiences and knowledge, to resolve issues quickly and effectively, thereby reducing the delay conflicts cause on projects.

After studying relationship dynamics in teams, Robert Blake and Jane Mouton, in their Managerial Grid Model of 1964, identified and described five basic approaches for handling conflicts, including: confrontation, compromise, smoothing, forcing, and withdrawal.

The most effective confrontation occurs when an individual focuses on identifying the underlying problem for which the conflict is a symptom. Confrontations typically involve open discussions among team members to work together to find solutions and settle their disagreements.

Regardless of this, confrontation solutions are easier said than done, as many people do not have the self-confidence to approach an individual with whom they are conflicted. Regardless, confrontation is essential in solving problems, and typically, for more complex problems, this strategy is the only effective measure of achieving resolution.

Another strategy for conflict management involves compromise. This method is typically applied when the main objective of the confrontation is to ensure that all parties involved are satisfied, thereby creating a reasonable middle ground. Compromise is one of the greatest achievements of humanity, but it requires effective communication and highly developed negotiation skills. So, project managers, brush up!

If a project manager is not necessarily directly involved in the conflict, such as is the case when two team members disagree, smoothing is often a very effective tool for conflict management. This strategy deemphasises differences between points of view, focusing instead on the common ground shared by the conflicted parties.

Smoothing, however, can be dangerous. While it may provide a band-aid solution to some problems, neglecting to confront underlying issues can also breed resentment among members of the team, and create an atmosphere of animosity.

Many project managers know that while taking the time to delve deep into underlying issues causing conflict within the team may be beneficial for team-building, sometimes, the issue is perceived as being so insignificant that managers opt, instead, to force their opinions as final decisions in order to reduce the amount of time spent on resolving conflicts. While this may be effective for some managers, forcing can also increase the intensity of the conflict.

The final strategy often used for conflict management among project managers is withdrawal. In this scenario, the manager avoids the conflict and allows the parties involved to work out a solution on their own.

Every situation is different and every team is different; therefore, project managers will have to decide which conflict management approach to use depending on the individuals involved, the source of conflict, and the consequences associated with the potential solutions.

Effective conflict management can lead to improved understand, performance, and productivity. Conversely, ineffective or nonexistent conflict management can lead to destructive behavior, animosity, poor performance, and reduced productivity – all of which threaten successful completion of project deliverables.

Project managers should certainly brush up on their communication and negotiation skills, to better provide effective measures of conflict resolution.