Conflict Resolution Techniques

July 26, 2020
Fahad Usmani
conflict resolution techniques

In project management, the work environment is dynamic and stressful, unlike a functional environment where it is very stable. Conflict is a common occurrence in this field.

Whenever two or more stakeholders have different opinions or interests, conflict can occur. According to the American Management Association, managers spend 24% of their time managing conflicts.

Conflicts happen due to many reasons, such as schedule priorities, scarce resources, technical reasons, and personal issues.

Don’t panic, it’s usually not as bad as you think. If appropriately managed, conflict resolution can build trust and sometimes bring new ideas and opportunities. Proper conflict resolution can make the difference between a positive and negative outcome, and an incorrect resolution can negatively affect a project.

Consequences of Improper Conflict Resolution

If you are not able to solve conflict effectively, your team members will lose trust in you, and each other, weakening their ability to work together and detracting from your project’s success. You must deal with conflict before it is beyond repair and starts affecting your project.

The following are a few consequences of improper conflict resolution:

  • Low team morale.
  • Negative impact on the project manager’s authority.
  • Increased number of personal clashes.
  • Low productivity and efficiency.
  • Low quality work.

Often a project manager must monitor and resolve conflicts as quickly as possible to keep them from becoming a significant issue.

Conflict Resolution Techniques

The PMBOK Guide sixth edition lists five conflict resolutions techniques:

  • Withdraw/Avoid
  • Smooth/Accommodate
  • Compromise/Reconcile
  • Force/Direct
  • Collaborate/Problem Solve

We will discuss each of them in detail.

Withdraw or Avoid

In this conflict resolution technique, you avoid the conflict or retreat and allow it to resolve itself. This technique is beneficial when stakes are low and it is likely the conflict will disappear on its own

This technique can be used in the following cases:

  • Individuals involved in the conflict are not major stakeholders.
  • The issue does not require a great time investment.
  • An intense argument has already happened, and the individuals need time to cool off.
  • If you do not have enough information to pursue other techniques.

Advantages

This technique saves time that you can invest in other productive activities. It is a good approach to apply to low-level conflicts and gives you enough time to prepare if the conflict re-emerges. .

Disadvantages

Withdrawing or avoiding a conflict may weaken your position as a project manager because parties may assume you have an unfair bias. Team members may think you are lacking skills and are not authoritative.

The main issue this conflict resolution technique: some experts say it is not a technique because when the conflict arises, you avoid it, and you do not take any action. Essentially, some say that escaping is not a solution.

Smooth or Accommodate

This technique deals with finding areas of agreement and tries to smooth the situation and circumvents tough discussions.

In smoothing, you give more consideration to one party than the other. Here you try to downplay the seriousness of the situation and behave as if the problem never existed.

This technique is useful in the following cases:

  • There isn’t enough time to deal with the conflict.
  • When only a temporary solution to the problem.
  • If the conflict is minor and involves less-influential stakeholders.

Advantages

This technique does not require much effort. You can focus on essential issues while ignoring unimportant arguments. The situation can be handled simply while, bringing harmony, creating goodwill, and providing enough time to find a permanent solution.

Disadvantages

If you fail to bring a balanced approach to smoothing, one party may take advantage of the situation since you are giving them more consideration. Members of the party not being accommodated to may question your authority or stop reporting conflicts.

This technique is not recommended as it often weakens the project manager’s authority.

Compromise or Reconcile

This is where you take suggestions from both sides and try to partially satisfy both parties. This technique is useful when the stakeholders involved in the conflict hold equal power.

You may use this technique in the following cases:

  • All parties involved in the conflict need to win.
  • When you, the project manager, have an equal relationship with both parties.
  • Collaborative and forcing techniques have not worked.
  • When you need a temporary solution to move forward quickly.

Advantages

This technique brings quick results, lowers stress, and keeps all parties placated until you can find a permanent solution. You can solve a conflict and gain enough time to find a better solution.

Disadvantages

This technique does not generate trust in the long run; all parties remain unsatisfied, and the conflict could resurface at any time. Moral is not being built. You may be required to interfere sooner to make sure that all parties abide by the agreement.

Force or Direct

Here you agree with one party’s viewpoint and enforce their wishes. This is a win-lose situation and risks demoralizing the team.

This conflict resolution technique can be used in the following cases:

  • When you need a quick solution.
  • When you know that one party is right and you do not have time to investigate.
  • When the stakeholders on the losing side of the conflict are not very important.
  • If the relationship with those stakeholders is not essential.

Advantages

This technique provides a quick solution to the problem. It requires almost no effort from the project manager, and it may help establish the project manager’s authority.

Disadvantages

Using this technique may cause a negative impression of you. You may lose opportunities gained from the opposing party’s viewpoint. You cannot apply this technique with high power stakeholders. Sometimes it may backfire and worsen the conflict.

Collaborate or Problem Solve

In this technique, you discuss the issue with all parties to agree on a solution, while considering multiple viewpoints.

You may use this technique in the following cases:

  • When you want to incorporate multiple views.
  • If the people involved in the conflict are very influential.
  • When a consensus is required.
  • If you want to distribute responsibility equally to all parties.

Advantages

This is a real problem-solving technique and gives a final solution to the conflict. It brings consensus, commitment, and shared responsibility for the outcome. This technique creates a win-win situation. It builds your confidence in the team, earns you respect and establishes your authority.

Disadvantages

You cannot use this technique when you need a quick solution because it takes time and effort. You cannot utilize this technique with all conflicts; it is generally used for conflicts which may severely affect your project.

Which Technique Should I Use?

PMI does not recommend any one technique for all conflicts; it all depends on the situation and the people involved.

For Example, If two ground-level laborers are have a conflict, what should you do? You may ignore it.

However, if you see that some important stakeholders have a conflict, you should endeavor to solve the conflict and spare your project from any harm.

Although no single technique can be used for all types of conflict, generally it is thought that the “Collaborate or Problem Solve” method brings the most consensus and commitment.

How to Prevent Conflict

You cannot keep conflict from happening, but following a few rules can minimize how often it happens. Fewer issues give you more time to focus on your task.

  • Establish Strict Ground Rules: These help in discipline team members resulting in less conflict.
  • Have an Effective Communication Plan: This plan can help you avoid many conflicts. Invest time in defining how much and how often you should communicate with your stakeholders.
  • Have a Better Stakeholder Management Plan: Your project is successful if your stakeholders are happy, and project management is all about managing stakeholders’ requirements. Conflict is caused by unsatisfied stakeholders, so manage them well.
  • Solve Conflict Early: This is easy and requires less time and effort over the long.  Make sure an unresolved conflict doesn’t resurface again later

The Role of the Project Manager in Conflict Resolution

I have explained all of the conflict resolution techniques and how you can use them. However, as a project manager, you have to respond rationally and reach a solution which best serves your situation.

While resolving a conflict, keep the following points in mind:

  • Treat each participant with respect.
  • Be calm and rational.
  • Keep people and problems separate.
  • Listen to each participant patiently.
  • Explore all possible solutions.
  • Do not let yourself be biased towards one side or the other.
  • Avoid forcing or pressuring participants to reach a solution.
  • Do not postpone a conflict, as it may fester.

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Summary

You as a project manager are responsible for finding a suitable method for each conflict as soon as it occurs. You cannot apply any single conflict resolution technique to all types of conflict. However, you should use a conflict resolution strategy that inspires consensus and commitment from team members, which would be the “Collaborate or Problem Solve” technique.

Here is where this blog post on conflict resolution techniques ends.


Below is my old blog post based on the fourth edition of the PMBOK Guide. Since then I have re-written it based on the current, sixth edition of the PMBOK Guide. The old blog post is no longer relevant but, I am leaving the old blog post as is because it explains the reasons why I launched my blog.

 “Conflict Resolution Techniques” was one of my favorite topics for my PMP certification exam preparation. When I was studying conflict resolution techniques, I observed a discrepancy between the PMP exam reference books and the PMBOK guide.

A project manager should make use of the Confronting technique in all cases because all the reference books suggested that it is the best conflict resolution technique. However, the PMBOK Guide (fourth edition) favors the Collaborative technique.

I have reviewed the PMBOK Guide (fourth edition) repeatedly, but I could not find any support for this statement, although it appeared to embrace the Collaborative technique to resolve conflicts. This is a conflict between the PMBOK Guide and other PMP exam reference books, and, to my surprise, nobody is discussing this discrepancy.

Therefore, I am launching my blog to address this issue, and this is my first blog post.

Conflict happens while managing projects. The PMI recognizes this fact and they have incorporated conflict resolution techniques into the PMBOK Guide.

Sources of conflict include: scheduling priorities, scarcity of resources, technical problems, personal issues, and others. According to the PMBOK Guide, you can use six conflict resolution techniques to resolve conflicts:

  • Withdrawing or Avoiding
  • Smoothing or Accommodating
  • Compromising
  • Forcing
  • Collaborating
  • Problem Solving or Confronting

Now I will discuss each technique briefly, and then I will discuss the best conflict resolution technique, as per the PMBOK Guide.

Withdrawing or Avoiding

The project manager chooses to avoid the conflict and allows those involved in to find a solution; the project manager takes no action.

Smoothing or Accommodating

The project manager is involved in the conflict, tries to avoid areas of disagreement, and focuses on commonalities. Smoothing is a way to avoid tough discussions.

Compromising

This is a mid-way approach. Here, everybody loses and gains something, and all parties get some satisfaction. This is a lose-lose approach.

Forcing

For this technique, you make a decision that is in favor of one party’s viewpoint at the expense of the others. This technique risks demoralizing team members and may cause serious conflict in the future.

This is a win-lose approach.

Collaborating

The project manager will work with all parties to find a resolution that involves multiple viewpoints and settles on the best solution. This technique reinforces mutual trust and commitment.

This is an example of a win-win approach.

In the fourth edition of the PMBOK Guide, Collaborating and Problem Solving were different techniques. However, they are the same technique now in the fifth and sixth edition of the PMBOK Guide. Also, in the fourth edition of the PMBOK Guide, problem-solving was known as Confronting. The term ‘Confronting’ can no longer be found in the current editions of the PMBOK Guide.

Problem Solving or Confronting

In this technique, a conflict is a problem for which the project manager must find a solution. This is done by conducting a root cause analysis, creating a platform for open discussions to allow all parties to express their areas of disagreement and arrive at a solution.

Which is the Best Conflict Resolution Technique?

I have reviewed many books and internet resources to discover the best problem solving or conflict resolution technique. Amazingly, I got the same answer: Confronting or Problem-Solving is the best technique for conflict resolution.

 I, personally, do not agree with this.

The job of the project manager is not an easy one; they must constantly deal with multiple conflicts. Since now all conflicts are not the same, you cannot always apply the same technique.

Project managers must use their judgment and experience to decide which conflict resolution technique is most suitable for the situation. Sometimes, they will choose to ignore the problem, and other times they will force a resolution of the conflict. The technique selected depends on the situation, timing, and the individuals involved in the conflict.

The primary objective of the project manager is to complete the project successfully.

A project manager is not a detective, it’s not their job to look for the root cause of every problem, to find and dig out every available detail, and scrap of evidence, and then decide the fate of those involved.

With problem-solving techniques, one person wins and another other loses; this is not a win-win situation, and will leave at least one person unhappy and unsatisfied even if they are wrong.

A prudent project manager will try to avoid this situation and look for a solution where they can keep all parties satisfied. It is better to choose the collaborating technique, which is a win-win situation for all.

Now, let us look at what the PMBOK Guide says about this:

Page-239, second paragraph:

“If conflict escalates, the project manager should help facilitate a satisfactory resolution. Conflict should be addressed early and usually in private, using a direct, collaborative approach.”

Page-229, last paragraph:

“… managing conflicts in a constructive manner, and encouraging collaborative problem solving and decision-making.”

No statement in the PMBOK Guide suggests using the problem solving/confrontation technique for all conflicts; however, I notice that the PMBOK Guide is recommending the collaborative technique.

It seems that PMI agrees with me too!

Conclusion

I do not recommend using the collaborative technique to solve all conflicts in your project. However, it is the only technique which leads to consensus and commitment among all parties involved in the conflict.

You can use the technique you think will be best suited to the situation. However, I cannot agree that confronting is the best conflict resolution technique, you should not use it blindly.

Now, take some time to think about it and let me know your thoughts about using conflict resolution techniques.

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Speak Your Mind

  • Sir, i realy appreaciat your idea and its very educative, please sir what technique should be use in resolving the conflict over land.

  • what the role as the PM or team member if conflict start to effect core project or one constrains should i start interfere to solve it or ask them to solve it by them self.

  • Thanks for your notes and questions bank. Your notes really inspired me how to study PMP exam and I got it passed yesterday.

  • Hi Fahad,
    I failed my first test and preparing for the second one.I prepared well with lot of material including PMBOK. But,i am unable to justify my weak areas.I purchased your 400 questions and scored 80% .Practiced well in all the areas.Can you advise me please?

  • Is I have to explain again the need of new requirements to members, which technique should I use? And when we are discussing alternative which one? I found the blog quite clear but to be honest I fail to differentiate when to use collaboration and compromise. Pls can you help me

    • Compromise is relatively quicker process where you take suggestion from both parties and reach on a conclusion.

      In collaborative approach you have a detailed discussion with both parties to reach on a best solution.

  • may be you are right but in my opinion all strategy are for work and in my case the compromise is the best option for me. Thankyou for your material.

  • Hello Fahad,

    I successfully completed the exam and now Certified PM 🙂 I want to thank you for these notes that really helped me understand the processes better in simpler terms. You are great teacher! I had purchased your formula guide and EVM guide as well which was immense help as well. Thank you and God bless you.

  • Hello Fahad,

    Your blog is great help. I am currently preparing for my PMP exam. Every time I am stuck or fail to understand a term/usage/formula, I come here and your explanation(s) helps me understand it. I want to thank you for that. And I also appreciate that you update your notes when there is a new edition of PMBOK. So this is a great reference site for people like me preparing to give their exams. Best

    • You are welcome Hazra. Now the six edition of the PMBOK is arriving next year, so I will have update them again.

      Thanks for your comment.

  • Hey Fahad,
    Thanks for your awesome notes. I also purchased the question set on Kindle.
    Helped me clear the test on first attempt.

    Regards,
    Amol

  • Can I please ask this question?

    Is problem solving the most effective, sustainable conflict resolution technique?
    Please provide reasons to substantiate your response.
    Discuss your opinion point by point. Thank you

  • Hi,

    I do see 3 to 5 questions coming out in MOCK Exams from Conflict resolution techniques. They are very close in resemblance among each other. However I commit the mistake between Smooth/Accomodate, Compromise/Reconciliation and also between Force/Direct, Withdraw/Avoid.

    Judgement becomes tough & above explanations are quite lengthy to recall/remember. In such case, is it possible to provide one scenario(Same people) with different situations that match the 5 conflict resolution techniques to understand?

    Many Thanks.

    Regards,
    Ram Narayan

  • I checked the PMOBOK fifth ed. and as you mention, but I also noticed the word confront (in pencil) near the word collaborate. I remembered that our instructor told us they have same meaning.

    • “but I also noticed the word confront (in pencil) near the word collaborate” – I did not understand what do you mean?

  • Fahad,

    Another nice post. In fact, conflict management technique is a fav topic of mine as well.

    However, I am unable to get – how compromise is loose-loose. Wont it be loose-win, even if temporary?

    • In compromise both parties have to give up something to reach on a common consensus.

      (Please note that this article is based on the fourth edition of the PMBOK Guide, in fifth edition, PMI has amalgamated collaborative and problem solving techniques.)

  • Hello All
    Which one is the worst conflict resolution method? I think its :forcing/directing, but ive seen places which advocate that withdrawing/avoiding is the worst one. Please share your thoughts.

  • Hi,

    In PMBook 5th edition, collaborating and problem solving are given as synonyms. As for confronting it disappeared, however I just did the exam and it is still the term they use for this. The way I see it, confronting is the same general ideology than collaborating and problem solving, all seeks win-win situation.

    Here is an excerpt from 5th ed.:
    “There are five general techniques for resolving conflict. As each one has its place and use, these are not given in any particular order”
    […]
    “Collaborate/Problem Solve. Incorporating multiple viewpoints and insights from differing perspectives; requires a cooperative attitude and open dialogue that typically leads to consensus and commitment.”

    I also think confronting/problem solving/collaborating leads to best solutions. As with many other things in life, we often have to select optimal result given the constrains rather than the very best one.

    Confronting is not a win-lose, its aim at win-win. you confront ideas of both party and the aim (the very reason why it’s time consuming) is by sharing actively their point of view, a common agreement will emerge (which can be to agree about one or the other party position or on a new position). Since it must be common agreement, it can only be win-win (unless it is a disguised compromise because one of the party pretend to agree). It is really the equivalent of collaborating/problem solving.

    • In the fourth edition of the PMBOK Guide, confronting and collaborative approach were different, now they are synonyms….

  • I’m sorry. Read the PMBOK again, and your sources. The PMBOK and PMI reinforce that the book is a “best practices” book, every management book is; take great care to understand and internalize that because the real world is quite different. No credible source can provide us with the “one and only” way, or the best way for all management situations.

    The PMBOK does not say (quoting you) “applying the same technique to all conflicts” would be justified.

    It actually says the opposite, which ironically is the case your’re making. “…each one has its place and use,”. For example, avoiding a problem, can be VERY effective in certain situation; particularly on a “high functioning” team.

    Now, you’re right about the industry consensus on confronting providing the best outcomes and usually as the favorable approach… It is! You just have to know when you have the OPPORTUNITY to use it, and how to employ it.

    (I’m a PMP and a “seasoned” Construction PM) Good luck to you!

    • I should add; collaborating and confronting are cross from parallels. That might be confusing you. If you read the Thomas-Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument; that definition of collaboration is very close to confronting. That and correctly diagnosing the issue goes hand in hand.

      However, collaboration is less optimal since it takes time. Every time a conflict comes up; there’s not always time to have a campfire and roast marshmallows. I think the PMBOK is trying to show that finding the root problem, is not always an outcome of collaboration.

      • Hello eh,

        You said that:

        ‘No credible source can provide us with the “one and only” way, or the best way for all management situations.’

        I am agree with you on it.

        Again you’ re saying:

        The PMBOK does not say (quoting you) “applying the same technique to all conflicts” would be justified.

        I’m totally agree with you here again, and in fact to prove this point I wrote this blog post. In this blog post I’m only trying to say that PMBOK does not say that you should apply one technique on all conflicts.

  • I would agree on collaborating is best solution and that also eventually goes to the root cause and as well buys in everybody OK which is a permanent solution than confronting/problem solving.

    for the purpose of get few marks we have to choose confronting !

  • I feel Fahad is right. Collaborating is the best technique to resolve the conflicts. In most of the real situations , we need all the team members to get along / participate without any grudges. This technique generally helps to take all the team members towards goals without hurting individual’s self esteem. Confronting can not be win – win always. I feel usage of techniques depends upon situation and project managers understanding.

  • Hello,

    thank you for this post.
    I really liked it.
    Although I am still not sure I fully understand the difference between confonting and collaborating. Are there any specific features of these techniquest that can help differentiate them clearly?
    Currently, I have a feeling that Confronting and Collaborating are almost the same thing

    • In collaborating, you incorporate multiple viewpoints and negotiate for the best solution. It is a win win approach, on the other hand confronting is problem solving technique. In confronting you will find the root cause of the problem and then reach to its solution. Confronting is a win lose situation.

      • Hello Fahad,

        I was going through the above comments where you mentioned that confronting is a win-lose situation. But if go by Rita Mulcahy , she mentioned confronting as Win-win situation.
        Even in some of the multiple choice questions is it considered as win-win situation. can you please help to understand this better. Thanks in advance.

        Regards,
        Gagan

          • Not exactly. 2 people may be, dont have any right path, they go to discussion/argument to figure out what is the best way to deal with the conflict.

            Confronting/problem solving includes:
            – Find the root cause of problem, not what is presented to you or what appears to be the problem
            – Analyze the problem
            – Identify solution
            – Pick a solution
            – Implement a solution
            – Review the solution and confirm that the solution can deal with the problem.

            Hence, Confronting is win-win situation. Win-lose situation refer to Forcing solution (1 win, 1 lose)

            • Two team members are having conflict, most of the time one is correct and other is wrong.

              In this case, if you go for the confronting then obviously the person who is in right path will win and other loses.

    • Yes, you are right but it does not mean that the project manager should always go for confronting.

      A project manager has to decide that which technique suits best to the situation.

  • What technique is used when a PM suggests to the Team members to contribute their respective PROS and CONS about the issue at hand and then suggests they discuss it. Is this collaborative or confronting?

    • It depends on what resolution he takes at the end. If he combines multiple view point and find the best agreeable solution, then it will be collaborative. And if he takes resolution of conflicts based on only facts then it will be confronting.

      • You may be right but only discussion does not mean that he will chose the confronting. He may also go with the collaborative technique or try to smooth the situation. All depends on the situation and problem at the hand.

  • I like your post very much and am in a project management class right now. Although confronting has a negative connotation, it is not always such. Confronting a problem and dictating how it should be resolved is the PM's job and if the other techniques do not work this approach should be taken. PM'S will run into personalities that will have a conflict with everything or everyone. Taking a direct confrontational approach may be required and should not be seen as a negative componant. Your assessment is great and accurrate.

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