How Do You Respond to Project Conflicts?

Project managers, team members, and other stakeholders have disagreements, some heated, some not. What’s important is how you respond to project conflicts? Conflicts can be beneficial if handled in an open, transparent manner.

team members in conflict

Successful project managers do not run away from conflict; they run toward it. They call it out by name in a neutral and unoffending manner. And they quickly engage the appropriate stakeholders in order to discuss and resolve the issues.

Furthermore, the best project managers are risk managers constantly mitigating conflicts. How? First, these leaders communicate well—they tell the team where they are going, how they will get there, and when things will occur. Second, they clarify goals, priorities, and requirements. Third, these project managers work with their teams to break down the project and make activity assignments clear.

Top Reasons for Project Conflicts

In his book—Principles of Project Management—John R. Adams highlights a study by Thamhain and Wilemon where they studied categories of conflict issues. They found that schedules, project priorities, and manpower resources caused 50 percent of all conflict in the seven categories. But conflict exists in all seven areas:

  1. Conflict of schedules
  2. Conflict over project priorities
  3. Conflict over manpower resources
  4. Conflict over technical opinions
  5. Conflict over administrative procedure
  6. Conflict over cost objectives
  7. Personality conflict

With this knowledge, wise project managers give their attention to the schedules, priorities, and human resources first. These areas will have the greatest impact in reducing conflicts.

Five Ways to Resolve Project Conflicts

Whenever you face strong differences in opinions, determine how you will manage the conflict. Here are five common conflict management techniques:

  1. Withdrawing. Some project managers hate conflict and avoid it as much as possible. Withdrawing from the conflict does not make it go away. The issues will surely surface later in the project and will likely cause more damage than if addressed early.
  2. Smoothing. Other project managers are as smooth as silk. These project managers emphasize the areas of agreement and fail to address the differences of opinion, thus, kicking the can down the road.
  3. Compromising. Another method of dealing with conflict is to search for solutions where the stakeholders will compromise.
  4. Forcing. Project managers may be given authority and power. These individuals are prone to “lay down the law.” Team members may comply, but typically these same members find a way to undermine the project manager later.
  5. Problem-Solving. Turn the difference in opinions into a problem to be solved mutually by the stakeholders by careful examination of the alternatives.

Of these techniques, withdrawing and smoothing are easiest and least effective. Sooner or later the stakeholders will make their opinions known. Compromising is certainly better and can bring about positive results. Forcing may move things forward quickly, but it can be risky.

My personal favorite is problem-solving if time permits. Why? Problem-solving, a collaborative effort—often results in a better understanding of everyone’s opinions, analysis of the solutions, and long-term buy-in and support. There’s less likelihood of stakeholders undermining the decisions later.

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