conflict resolution techniques

Today we will discuss the five conflict resolution techniques that we use in project management to resolve conflict.

These techniques are universal to any type of workplace. 

However, in project management, the work environment is dynamic and stressful, unlike the functional environment. Conflicts are common occurrences. If you are managing projects, you know how important it is to manage conflicts, and that is why you should understand the conflict resolution techniques. 

Conflict Resolution Techniques

When two or more stakeholders have different opinions or interests, conflict can occur. 

Schedule priorities, scarce resources, technical reasons, and personal issues can all cause clashes. According to the American Management Association, managers spend 24% of their time managing conflicts.

Don’t panic; the situation is usually not as bad as you think. Resolving conflicts appropriately can build trust and sometimes bring new ideas and opportunities. This can make the difference between a positive and negative outcome.

If you don’t solve the conflict, your team members will lose trust. It will weaken your position as a project manager and the ability of your team to bond, which may affect your project’s success. You must deal with conflict before it is beyond resolution.

The following are a few consequences of improper conflict management:

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

If required, project managers must monitor and resolve conflicts as quickly as possible to keep them from becoming bigger issues.

Now, we will talk about conflict resolution techniques.

This blog follows the PMI guidelines and PMBOK Guide. Here are the five techniques:

  1. Withdraw/Avoid
  2. Smooth/Accommodate
  3. Compromise/Reconcile
  4. Force/Direct
  5. Collaborate/Problem Solve

These conflict management strategies are also known as Thomas-Kilmann’s five approaches to resolving conflict.

Let’s discuss each technique in detail.

#1. Withdraw of Avoid

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

Use this technique in the following cases:

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

Advantages

This technique saves time that you can invest elsewhere. It is a good conflict management strategy to apply to low-level disagreements and gives you enough time to prepare if the conflict re-emerges.

Disadvantages

Withdrawing or avoiding is not really a resolution, does not resolve a conflict, and may weaken your position because parties may assume you have an unfair bias. Team members may think you are lacking skills or are not authoritative.

Many experts don’t consider this technique as a conflict management strategy, that avoiding and escaping is not a solution.

#2. Smooth or Accommodate

In this conflict resolution strategy, you find areas of agreement and try to smooth out the situation and circumvent tough discussions.

The smoothing technique gives more consideration to one party than the other. You downplay the seriousness and behave as the conflict never existed.

This technique is helpful in the following cases:

  • You don’t have time to deal with it.
  • You require a temporary solution to the problem.
  • The conflict is minor and involves less influential stakeholders.

Advantages

This conflict resolution strategy does not require much effort. You can focus on essential issues by ignoring unimportant arguments. Situations can be potentially 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, one party may take advantage since you are giving them more consideration. Other parties not being accommodated may question your authority or stop reporting conflicts.

This conflict resolution strategy is not recommended as it often weakens the project manager’s authority.

#3. Compromise or Reconcile

In this conflict management strategy, you take suggestions from both sides and partially satisfy them. This technique is useful when the stakeholders involved hold equal power.

You may use this technique in the following cases:

  • All parties involved need to win
  • When you have an equal relationship with both parties
  • Collaborative and forcing techniques have failed
  • When you need a temporary solution 

Advantages

This technique brings quick results, lowers stress, and keeps all parties placated until you can find a permanent solution. You can cool off and revisit the situation later.

Disadvantages

This conflict management technique does not generate trust in the long run; all parties remain unsatisfied, and the conflict could resurface at any time. Morals are not being strengthened. You may have to ensure all parties abide by the agreement.

#4. Force or Direct

In this conflict management strategy, you agree with one party’s viewpoint and enforce their wishes. This is a win-lose situation and risks demoralizing the team.

You can use this conflict resolution technique in the following cases:

  • When you need a quick solution
  • When you know that one party is right
  • You do not have time to investigate
  • When the conflict is not very important
  • When the relationship with stakeholders is not essential

Advantages

This technique provides a quick solution. It requires almost no effort from the project manager and it may help establish their authority.

Disadvantages

Using this technique may cause a negative impression on you. You may lose opportunities gained from the opposing party’s viewpoint. You cannot apply this technique with powerful stakeholders. It may backfire and worsen the conflict.

#5. Collaborate or Problem Solve

In a collaborative conflict resolution strategy, you discuss the issue with all parties and agree on a solution while considering multiple viewpoints.

You may use this technique in the following cases:

  • When incorporating multiple views
  • If influential stakeholders are involved
  • When a consensus is required
  • If you want to distribute responsibility 

Advantages

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

Disadvantages

You cannot use this technique when you need a quick solution because it takes time and effort. It is generally used for conflicts that may affect your project, not all issues

Which Conflict Resolution Technique Should I Use?

The PMI does not recommend using any specific technique for all conflicts; it all depends on the situation and the stakeholders involved.

For example, if two ground-level laborers have a conflict, what should you do?

 You may ignore it.

However, if you see that some important stakeholders have a conflict, you will intervene, solve the conflict, and spare your project from harm.

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

How to Prevent Conflict 

You cannot keep all conflict from happening, but following a few rules can minimize it. These guidelines are:

  • Establish Strict Ground Rules: These help discipline team members which result in less conflict.
  • Have an Effective Communication Plan: This can help you avoid many conflicts. Define how much and how often you will communicate with your stakeholders.
  • Have a Better Stakeholder Management Plan: Your project is successful if your stakeholders are happy. Project management is all about managing stakeholders’ requirements. 
  • Solve Conflict Early: This takes less time and effort. Make sure an unresolved conflict doesn’t resurface again later.

The Role of the Project Manager in Conflict Resolution

I have explained all strategies to resolve conflicts and how you can use them. As a project manager, you have to respond rationally and reach a solution that best serves your objective.

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

  • Each participant deserves respect
  • Be calm, and rational.
  • People are separate from problems
  • Each participant should be listened to patiently
  • There are always areas of agreement and disagreement
  • You should explore all possible solutions.
  • Mind your biases and don’t pick sides
  • Don’t force or pressure participants
  • Postponed conflicts may fester. 
  • Focus on the conflict, don’t let escalate the issue or generalize it.

Summary

As a project manager, you are responsible for keeping conflicts under control. You cannot use any single technique for all types of conflict. However, you should use a conflict resolution strategy that inspires consensus and commitment from team members.

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


Below is my old blog post on conflict resolution strategies based on the fourth edition of the PMBOK Guide. Since I have re-written it based on the sixth edition of the PMBOK Guide, the old blog post is no longer relevant but I am keeping it archived. 

 “Conflict Resolution Techniques” was one of my favorite topics during my PMP certification exam preparation. Although, I observed a discrepancy between the PMP exam reference books and the PMBOK guide.

All the reference books suggested that confronting is the best conflict resolution technique and that a project manager should use this technique to resolve conflicts in all cases. However, the PMBOK Guide (fourth edition) favors the collaborative technique.

I have reviewed this edition of the  PMBOK Guide repeatedly but I could not find any support for this.. To my surprise, nobody is discussing this discrepancy.

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

Let’s get started.

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, technical problems, personal issues, scarcity of resources, etc. 

According to the PMBOK Guide (fourth edition), you can use six conflict resolution techniques to resolve conflicts:

  1. Withdrawing or Avoiding
  2. Smoothing or Accommodating
  3. Compromising
  4. Forcing
  5. Collaborating
  6. Problem Solving or Confronting

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

  1. Withdrawing or Avoiding: The project manager chooses to avoid the conflict and those involved find a solution.
  2. Smoothing or Accommodating: The project manager is involved in the conflict, tries to avoid areas of disagreement and tough discussions, and focuses on commonalities. Smoothing is a way to avoid tough discussions.
  3. Compromising: This is a mid-way approach. Here, everybody gains some but no one gets exactly what they want. This is a lose-lose approach.
  4. Forcing: The project manager makes a decision in favor of one party 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.
  5. Collaborating: The project manager works with all parties to find a resolution that involves multiple viewpoints to create 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, the fifth and sixth editions, they are the same technique. Also, problem-solving was known as confronting in the fourth edition, but it no longer appears in current PMBOK Guides. 

A Note on Problem Solving or Confronting Technique

In confronting technique, the project manager must find a solution for a conflict. He will conduct a root cause analysis, provide a platform for all parties to express their disagreements and arrive at a solution.

So, Which is the Best Technique to Resolve a Conflict?

I have reviewed many books and internet resources to discover the best conflict resolution technique. Amazingly, 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 a project manager is not an easy one; they must constantly deal with multiple conflicts. No two conflicts are the same, so why would you always use one technique?

Project managers must use their judgment and experience to decide which conflict resolution technique is most suitable for each situation. The technique selected depends on the situation, timing, and the individuals involved.

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, dig every available detail and scraps of evidence, and then reach a conclusion.

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

A prudent project manager will try to avoid this situation and look for a solution that keeps all parties satisfied. The collaborating conflict resolution technique, which is a win-win situation for all.

Let us see what does the PMBOK Guide says:

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 noticed that the PMBOK Guide recommends the collaborative technique.

It seems that the PMI agrees with me too!

My View

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

The strategy of conflict management depends on the conflict. You can use the technique you think will be best suited to the situation to resolve the conflict. However, I cannot agree that confronting is the best conflict resolution technique, and you should not use it blindly.

What conflict resolution techniques help you most to resolve conflicts? Please share your experience through the comments section.