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Conflict and Projects

Conflict within projects can manifest itself in many different ways.

At the highest level, disagreements can lead to the pursuit of remedies through legal channels and cost organisations large amounts of money. A good project manager knows when to intervene and take action when conflict occurs.

At a lower level, conflict within a team may need to be dealt with by the leader or manager using softer skills and techniques. They must recognise that the pressures associated with achieving quality objectives will inevitably lead to conflict. It is people who achieve these objectives for you, but people are complex and will require motivation and support. The detrimental aspects of conflict can be minimised, if the project manager anticipates the potential conflicts and understands their determinants.

Conflict can arise from any of the following players: managers, senior management, client, team members and subcontractors.

Potential causes of conflict are:

  • Diversity of disciplinary expertise
  • Task interdependency
  • Poor leadership by the project manager
  • Insufficient authority given to the project manager
  • Lack of communication or an understanding of objectives
  • Lack of organisation structures and role ambiguity
  • Human emotion
  • The prospect of change

A very common cause of conflict in a project environment can occur in the relationship between project manager and functional manager. This relationship needs to be open, communicative and focused (a relationship based upon negotiation and understanding).

The Conflict Cycle

The cycle of conflict can be an unbroken loop that is fuelled by a disputant’s sense of being wronged. However the cycle can be broken at two key places: beliefs and response (behaviour). These places serve as ‘gateways’ to break destructive attitudes and behaviours

The skills required for dealing with conflict will depend on the conflict-handling mode that is most appropriate for the situation.

Ideally we should deal with conflict by understanding beliefs/attitudes. This in effect is trying to understand the other party’s point of view and coming to resolution before a conflict has effectively started.

The problem solving strategies of conflict management address needs, and create opportunities for those needs to be satisfied. When individuals choose to continue conflict, no one’s basic needs are fulfilled. Basic psychological needs are the root of almost all conflict. The impulse to meet these needs during a conflict are so strong that we can act irrationally, even violently, if they are not satisfied.

Conflict Resolution Approaches

If conflict cannot be dealt with at the belief stage, then it may be necessary to try and break the cycle at response/behaviour stage. To reach a resolution that is amenable to both parties a balance of assertiveness and cooperation is required.

  • Avoidance – the conflict is ignored as the leader may feel that the conflict is not worth the effort to resolve at this time. They may address at a later stage if necessary.
  • Accommodation – agreement through yielding or conforming to the positions of others; cooperation in an effort to create harmony, even at the expense of your own ideas and values.
  • Compromise – involves a search for a solution which is mutually acceptable (give and take to get to the middle ground). Compromise may be one of the best ways of dealing with conflict when time is short, or when total agreement is impossible.
  • Competition – This is the offensive, aggressive approach to conflict resolution. One of the criticisms of competition is that it takes advantage of the oppositions weakness, by resorting to various strategies and tactics which have a disarming nature.
  • Collaboration – a total membership approach to conflict resolution. All involved accept the fact that there is conflict, take time to share values/needs, discover possible solutions, selects the best solution for all, forms a team plan, implements and evaluates the outcomes.

There is no single best approach that will help a project manager deal with every conflict situation. It is up to each project manager to develop a situational style which incorporates many different ways of dealing with conflict. Effective project leadership is leadership which is adaptive.

Conflict Resolution Summary

  • Address the substance of the conflict.
  • Address the procedures for dealing with the conflict ( policies, intervention strategies etc).
  • Separate the relationship that people have with the conflict, from the substance of the conflict.
  • Discuss everyone’s perception of the conflict.
  • Be sensitive to the emotions which may be stirred as a result of the conflict.
  • Address the options and acknowledge them as legitimate.
  • Listen actively – listen to what is being said before developing a response.
  • Focus on interests, not positions.
  • Look for compatible interests and points of agreement.
  • Be hard on the conflict, soft on the people.
  • Brainstorm your options to solve the conflict.
  • Look for mutual gain.
  • Reason and be open to reason.
  • Use equity and fairness in your standards and procedures.
  • Check to see if all parties are comfortable with the outcomes.