It is easy to get entrenched in our thinking, and we may not even know it.  Our team members can lose a sense of balance perspective about the situation.  In the worst-case scenarios, the team member(s) can become jaded.  It is incumbent of the project manager to help the team retain a sense of balance and perspective.  A loss of perspective or balance can make all other dependent interactions difficult.  Unresolved conflict, or inadequately resolved conflict will foment discontent and division in a group that we would prefer to be a team.

A Project Manager may not be liked but they must create an environment of respect and trust. ~ Steve Lauck


The stresses of a project, constrained by time and money and performed by people, create many opportunities for conflict of all types. Conflicts have varying degrees of impact or levels of pain and harm that can be inflicted upon the team, and the project.  It is certain that we, as project managers or even managers, will be graded on how effective we respond, in the long term and how quickly we respond. Okay, so we are not likely to be graded on this performance, but we certainly will be assessed on the outcome of the effort.  For example, consider the client that has a rough exchange with one of the team members, and this unresolved issue spills over into present project efforts negatively.  The project manager has a discrete discussion with key client players and brings this discussion delicately back to the team member and works toward resolution.

In fact, that is the genesis for this short writing.  The project manager was in discussions with management and project team members regarding comments from a client. The client had confided in the project manager, about the company’s performance in an area not specifically related to project management was not as required.  The client’s comments were directed at the way failed parts are handled, specifically, root cause analysis. The client’s perception is that the failed part effort is focused entirely on a material disposition, that is, who owns what quality symptom from the failure list rather than a true root cause analysis and corrective action.  The difference between these two approaches is the deference between continuous improvement and that of assigning blame and economic responsibility for the circumstance.

There are five approaches and description to conflict1

Accommodation – a low level of assertion either due to internal motivations or due to external factors such as political pressures.  Accommodating acquiesces or yields – this approach prizes the relationship over the tumult of the conflict, to the extreme this may have our team impacted by group think.  Accommodation does not solve the problem it just suppresses the concerns.

  1. Avoiding – if you do not like conflict, you will undertake extraordinary measures to avoid it. Conversely, if you are a conflict junkie, you will go out of your way to be involved in conflict.  Avoiding does not take on the problem, but rather, like an ostrich puts their head in the sand either hoping the problem will go away or people will just get tired of complaining about the area of concern.  Experience suggests this approach to come with a myriad of other problems,
  2. Collaboration – a combination of assertion and collaboration, this approach can resolve issues or problems as the objective is to meet both sides (or all sides) needs.  This approach requires investment in time as detailed exploration and understanding of the individual objectives and obstacles
  3. Competing – the strong willed, strong personalities or strong political influences make command decisions relying on these levels of clout to quickly move to a decision.  This is good approach for emergency situations where we need a quick good decision, pulling all the other team members behind a clear, singular approach.  This is not a middle ground approach, but an approach that gives both sides what is needed.
  4. Compromise – middle ground, both sides find a mutually

A project manager must be versed in all ways of dealing with conflict, starting with knowing when it is time to respond. In most cases conflict has signals if we are paying attention.  Some situations or symptoms below:

  • team members may be open; except when a certain another team member is around.
  • a team member may be argumentative at the drop of a hat, or when discussing certain topics.
  • a client making an ‘off the record’ request to remove a team member
  • divisive cliques in the team
  • consistent and persistent performance issues

To be sure the most difficult is to know when the project manager needs to intervene.  Conducting private one-on-one interviews with everyone involved should identify what is going on as well as which approach to take to resolve the conflict.  Sometimes, these one-on-one discussions may make it possible to put things in place to relieve the tension.  Other times, the work is just beginning.

Once the project manager decides to intervene, the next decision is the best approach.  What would be the optimum strategy?  Why? Are there underlying political entanglements to this discussion?  What may be unintended consequences of our approach and actions?  What is the next best strategy to employ if the primary strategy fails?  Depending upon the situation and the organization, some of these questions can be explored with the team.  Including them in defining and producing the solution can go a long way to a sustained change.  Edicts seldom have a long-term impact and only temporary, if at all success.  There are a variety of leadership styles that can be explored, matching the appropriate approach to the circumstances will require some knowledge and perhaps some trial and error.  We will write more about that in the next article.

For example:

  1. Accommodation – The project manager may choice to accommodate the players if it is a simple change. The project manager may choose to ask one of the players to make accommodations for other players.
  2. Avoiding – The project manager may choice to avoided the issue after interviewing the players. The project manager may choose the best steps are for the players to continue to avoid the situation causing the tumult until the end of the project, if it does not negatively impact the project flow and chance of success.
  3. Collaboration – The project manager might ask each of the players their needs and decide if there is a way to alter behaviors or expectations in to project execution to resolve the objectives and obstacles.
  4. Competing – The conflict between players maybe be out of the project or immediate control of the project manager so it needs to be escalated to the project sponsor or appropriate department manager(s).
  5. Compromise – this lies along with Collaboration. The project manager needs to get alignment and agreement for all players to alter or adjust their behaviors and expectations.

Managing and resolving of conflict is one of those ‘must do’ project managers skills.  Quick intervention inhibits team growth, neglect is likewise not an appropriate approach for most conflict.  The project manager must know when to respond, and how to respond to ensure these issues do not take the team and the project down to failure.  This falls under Project Management is NOT a popularity contest, decisions based upon objectives and standards and open communication helps build trust. Depending on the success of the execution of the approach, the project manager may make friends or may lose friends.  Keep focused on the success of the project and being a respected project manager.