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