During my PMP exam preparation when I studied the conflict resolution techniques in a few PMP exam reference books and in the PMBOK Guide, I observed a discrepancy.
All reference books were suggesting that confronting is the best conflict resolution technique, and a project manager should use it in all cases.
However, the PMBOK Guide (fourth edition) seems to recommending the collaborative technique.
I looked at the PMBOK Guide (fourth edition) again and again, but I never saw the PMBOK supporting their statement, although it appeared to encourage the collaborative technique to resolve conflicts.
This was a serious conflict between the PMBOK Guide and other PMP exam reference books. I was amazed that nobody was raising any voice against this discrepancy.
So I launched this blog to address this point, and this was my first blog post on this blog.
This post resonated well among visitors and is still one of the top visited posts of this blog. The basis of this blog post was the fourth edition of the PMBOK Guide, and now the fifth edition of this guide has arrived.
There has been many changes in the new version of the PMBOK Guide, which has impacted the relevancy of this blog post. Therefore, I am re-writing this blog post to align it with the fifth edition of the PMBOK Guide.
I am also leaving my old content intact below this post so anybody who is interested in reading the old post can do so.
Okay let’s get started.
Conflicts are normal and they are a part of our life. Conflict happens when the interests of two or more stakeholders interfere with one another.
There will be hardly any project where you will not see a conflict that will not require the project manager’s intervention. There can be many reasons for it, such as schedule priorities, scarce resources, technical reasons, personal causes, etc.
In fact, conflicts are not always bad; if managed properly, they build trust, and sometimes can bring new ideas and opportunities.
A proper conflict resolution can make the difference between a positive and negative outcome. An improper resolution can negatively affect your project.
The following are a few consequences of improper conflict resolution:
- Low team morale
- Impact on authority of the project manager
- More personal clashes
- Low productivity and efficiency
- Low quality work
As a project manager it is your job to monitor and resolve conflicts in the early stage to avoid them from becoming a major issue.
You can use many techniques to resolve conflicts.The PMBOK Guide fifth edition mentions five such techniques:
- Collaborate/Problem Solve
Now let’s discuss each of them in detail.
In this conflict resolution technique, you will avoid the conflict or simply retreat. You will let this issue be solved by itself.
You can use this technique in the following cases:
- When stakes are low.
- The stakeholders involved in the conflict are not important.
- The issue is not worth investing your time.
- The issue will disappear on its own after some time.
- When there is a heated argument among parties and you want to give them some cooling time.
- When there is limited or no information available about the conflict.
The advantage of this technique is that it saves your precious time that you can invest in some other productive activities.
The disadvantages of this technique is that it may weaken your position as a project manager and negatively affect your relationships.
There is a dispute with this conflict resolution technique: Some experts say that this is not a conflict resolution technique because when the conflict arises you simply avoid it, no action is taken from your side, and escaping is not a solution.
Here, you will find areas of agreement, and try to smooth the situation. This technique helps you avoid tough discussion.
In smoothing, you give more concerns to other parties rather than yours. Here you try to just play down the situation and behave like the problem never existed.
This technique can be used in the following cases:
- When you are very busy and have no time.
- You need a temporary solution to the problem.
The advantages of this technique are that it cools down the temperature, brings harmony, creates goodwill, and gives you sufficient time to find a permanent solution.
The disadvantage of this technique is that since you’re giving more concerns to other parties, they may try to take advantage of it.
The other disadvantage is that it may weaken your position as an authoritative leader, therefore you should avoid using this technique to solve issues.
Here you take suggestions from both sides and try to make a compromise. Both parties involved in the conflict gain something, so this solution partially satisfies both parties.
You may use this technique in the following cases:
- All parties involved in the conflict need to win.
- You have an equal relationship with them.
- When collaborative and forcing techniques do not work.
- When you need a temporary solution to move forward quickly.
The advantages of this technique are that it brings a faster result, lowers the stress, keeps all parties cool, and in the meantime you can search for a permanent solution.
The disadvantages of this technique are that it does not bring trust in the long run, and the conflict could resurface at any time.
Here you agree with one party’s viewpoint and enforce their wishes. This is a win-lose situation and can demoralize team members.
You can use this technique in the following cases:
- You need a quick solution.
- When stakes are high and you need an immediate solution.
- When you know one party is right and don’t have time to investigate.
- The stakeholders involved in the conflict and not very important.
- The relationship with them is not important.
The advantage of this technique is that it provides a quick solution to the problem.
The disadvantages of this technique is that you may lose the opportunity gained from the opposing party’s viewpoint, and it may negatively affect your impression on your team members.
In this technique you will discuss the issue with all parties to find a solution considering multiple viewpoints and agreed upon by all.
You may use this technique in the following cases:
- When you want to incorporate multiple views.
- The people involved in the conflict are very influential.
- When a consensus is required.
- When you want to distribute the responsibility equally to all parties.
The advantages of this technique are that it brings consensus, commitment, and shared responsibility for the outcome. This technique is considered to be a win-win approach.
The main disadvantage of this technique is that it takes time and effort, so it cannot be used when you’re in a hurry and need a quick solution.
Please note: In the fourth edition of the PMBOK Guide, Collaborating and Problem Solving were different techniques but now in the fifth edition of the PMBOK Guide they are the same. Also in the fourth edition of the PMBOK Guide, problem solving was also known as confronting. The term ‘confronting’ is no longer visible in the fifth edition of the PMBOK Guide.
PMI does not recommend any single technique to be used in all types of conflict; it truly depends on the situation and the person involved in the conflict.
Suppose if two ground level laborers are involved in a conflict, you may simply ignore it. However, if you see that some important stakeholders are having a conflict, you will show interest in solving the conflict to save your project from any harm.
Although there is no single technique that can be used in all types of conflict, it is generally understood that Collaborate/Problem Solve is a technique which brings consensus and commitment.
Role of the project manager
I have explained all types of conflict resolution techniques and you can use them if any conflict arises in your project. However, as a project manager you have to respond rationally and reach a solution which best serves your project.
While resolving conflict, please keep the following points in mind:
- Treat each participant respectfully.
- Be calm and rational.
- Keep people and problems separate.
- Listen to each participant patiently.
- Explore all possible solutions.
- Don’t take the side of any participant, unless you have arrived on a resolution and the participant is on the resolution’s side.
- Try to avoid forcing and pressurizing participants to reach a solution.
- Try to avoid postponing a conflict, as it may increase its severity.
There is no single conflict resolution technique that can be applied to all types of conflict resolution. It is your responsibility as a project manager to find the suitable technique for any conflict which arises in your project.
However, you should try to implement a resolution which brings consensus and commitment from team members. The technique which brings consensus and commitment is the Collaborate or Problem Solve technique.
Here is where this blog post on conflict resolution techniques ends. If you have something to share, you can do so in the comments section.
Below is my old blog post based on the fourth edition of the PMBOK Guide. Although this post is not valid now, it is still a good read.
Which is the Best Conflict Resolution Technique?
This was one of my favorite topics for my PMP certification exam preparation. When I was studying the PMP reference books, I saw that confronting is the best conflict resolution to solve problems, and a project manager should always use this technique.
However, when I opened the PMBOK Guide, I found that it was recommending the collaborative technique.
If you don’t agree with me, I request you read this blog post and think again.
It is natural for conflicts to arise among human beings. PMI recognizes this fact, and therefore it has incorporated the conflict resolution techniques into the PMBOK Guide.
Sources of conflicts include schedule priorities, scarcity of resources, technical problems, personal issues, etc. And as per the PMBOK Guide, there are six conflict resolution techniques, which you can use to resolve conflict. Here, I’m going to discuss the six techniques mentioned in the PMBOK Guide, and then I will defend the best technique conflict resolution technique as per the PMBOK Guide.
Withdrawing or Avoiding
Here, the project manager chooses to avoid the conflict, and allows the persons involved in the conflict to find their own solution.
No action is taken by the project manager.
Smoothing or Accommodating
Here, 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. All parties get some sort of satisfaction.
It is a lose-lose approach.
In this technique, a decision is made in favor of one party’s viewpoint at the expense of others, which can demoralize team members and may cause an increase in conflicts.
It is a win-lose approach.
Here, the project manager will work with all parties to find a resolution that involves multiple viewpoints and negotiates for the best solution. This technique reinforces mutual trust and commitment.
This is an example of a win-win approach.
Problem Solving or Confronting
In the problem solving or confronting technique, a conflict will be treated as a problem for which the project manager has to find a solution. The project manager will conduct root cause analysis of the reason for the conflict, encourage open discussions to allow parties to express their areas of disagreement, and then arrives at a solution.
I have gone through many books and Internet resources to look for the best problem solving or conflict resolution technique. Amazingly, everywhere I looked, I got the same answer … “confronting or problem solving is the best technique for conflict resolution”.
However, I do not agree with this.
The job of the project manager is not an easy one, and he has to deal with many conflicts all the time. Moreover, the kind of conflicts that he will face will not all be the same kind, so applying the same technique to all conflicts would not be justified.
He has to use his judgment and experience to decide the best conflict resolution technique, which is suited best to the situation. Sometimes he will choose to simply ignore the problem, and other times he will force his resolution on the conflict. The type of technique chosen depends on the situation, timing, and the persons involved in the conflict.
The objective of the project manager is to successfully complete the project.
A project manager is not a judge whose job is to look for the root cause of every problem, finding and digging out every available detail, each scrap of evidence, and then making the decision as written in the law books.
For a judge, even though it may take several years, he will always use a problem solving technique for every conflict. A project manager cannot do this for every conflict.
In the problem solving technique, one wins and another other loses. It is not correct to say that it is a win-win situation, because the person who loses will usually be unhappy and unsatisfied even he is wrong, and it is difficult for him to digest his failure.
A prudent project manager will try to avoid this situation, and always look for a solution where he could keep all parties satisfied.
Therefore, he would be more likely to choose the collaborating technique, which is a win-win situation for all.
Now, let us see 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.”
I never read in the PMBOK Guide, anywhere, that it suggests using the problem solving/confrontation technique for all conflict resolution; however, I notice that the PMBOK Guide is recommending the collaborative technique.
It seems that PMI is agreeing with me too!
I am not saying that you should always use the collaborative technique to solve all conflicts in your project. However, this is the technique which brings consensus and commitment among all parties involved in the conflict.
You can use any techniques that you think will be best suited to the situation. However, I cannot agree that confronting is the best conflict resolution technique and that you should use it blindly for all kinds of conflicts.
Now, it is time for you to think about it and let me know if you agree with me or not. I am waiting for your comments.