Hello readers and welcome back to our Project Management series. Today, we will be looking at how to handle a common and interesting challenge that we face in our daily lives as project managers: conflict. We will also be exploring the various conflict management techniques and ways to prevent conflicts in an organization.

Conflict can be defined as a disagreement or a clash that comes about as a result of variation in opinions. Organizational conflict occurs when two or more parties (team members, departments, management) with different objectives, goals or attitudes compete for the same limited resources.

While some conflicts might be preventable, others are not. The truth is that nobody wakes up looking to start an argument (though maybe some people do). Also, contrary to popular opinion, not all conflicts are bad or harmful to the progress of an organization. If we remember the stages of team formation (forming, storming, norming and performing), we would realize that storming comes before performing. Storming is a project phase where various ideas, opinions and differences are discussed, which allows the team members to work effectively together in the long run. A lot of conflict occurs among team members during this phase.

Some conflicts however do get out of hand and begin to affect the organization in a negative way. Employees begin to lose morale, opinions begin to get personal and everyone tries to pursue their personal interests instead of the organizational goals. These kinds of conflict are what this article aims to address. We begin by looking at the causes of conflict in organizations.

CAUSES OF CONFLICT IN ORGANISATIONS

Managerial expectations/actions

Ironically, while managers are known to be the ones who resolve organizational conflicts, research has also shown that their actions or inaction is one of the primary causes of conflict in organizations.

Broadly defined scope, ambiguous expectations and leadership styles are some of the biggest causes of conflict in organizations. When objectives as defined by management are very broad and ambiguous, it is more likely for a worker to make a mistake and result in worker-management conflict or conflict among team members. It is the function of the management to set goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound (SMART) in order to reduce conflicts in organizations.

Inadequate release of resources is also a common management action that causes conflict within an organization. When a resource required to satisfy a project objective is not available when required, such as money, time or human resource, it shows the management is not committed to the project, which often leads to organizational conflict.

Poor communication

We can never get tired of talking about communication in project management; after all, it’s what we spend 90% of our time doing as project managers.

Effective communication is key for the success of any project. While implementing a project, we communicate with various parties like team members, departments, management, etc. If there is a bridge in any of these communication channels, then a conflict is looming within the organization.

For example, the packaging department of a manufacturing company is not in proper communication with the delivery department, leading to finished goods staying longer in the warehouse, which results in late delivery of goods to users. This inefficiency in communication would often lead to a conflict between the departments. Poor communication among team members also leads to a conflict between members, which are detrimental to the success of any project.

Personality conflict

We often work with individuals with different personalities on a project. While we usually realize there is a difference in personality, understanding this difference would help us avoid conflict. It might be difficult for an outspoken and overtly friendly personality to relate with an introvert without any conflict.

Also, our cultural backgrounds do form a big part of our personality. What is decent in Britain might by unethical in Japan. Project team members often cross across various cultural backgrounds; thus, we should always try to understand the personality type of our team members in order to avoid conflict.

Differences over methodology

Methodology is the way we go about (process) achieving the objectives of a project. Depending on the kind of project, the project group members or project teams are sometimes given the freedom to choose the methodology they would love to use.

There are often more than one way of getting a job done and the probability exists that people would often argue about the methods, process and procedures. While there is no crime in exploring various ways in getting a job done, the team and project interest should always be put ahead of any individual interest in order to avoid organizational conflict.

Competition for scarce resources

From basic economics, we would remember that man’s needs are unlimited while resources are limited. This applies to project organizations as well.

When a human or machine resource is required by more than one department at the same time, this can lead to conflict. Some departments are so obsessed with achieving their goals with no consideration for what the other department requires. This is the purpose of resource leveling in projects as it helps schedule resources (especially scarce resources) so that they can be available when needed.

As mentioned earlier, not all conflict is bad, as some could result in increased productivity. It is however our duty as project managers to ensure that a conflict does not affect the organization negatively.

SKILLS REQUIRED FOR CONFLICT MANAGEMENT

As a project manager, what skill sets do you require to manage conflict? Problem solving, negotiation, listening and communication skills are the most important skills required for managing conflicts. With the right combination of these skills, you would be able to identify the cause of conflict, communicate with and listen to the parties involved and determine the best solution that addresses the problem, satisfies all parties or as many as possible without jeopardizing the project goal.

It is important to mention that sometimes during conflict resolution, it might be impossible to please all parties.

Methods of resolving conflicts in organization

There are various ways of resolving conflict and, depending on the nature of the conflict, the project manager should select the appropriate conflict resolution method. While some resolution methods are very assertive, others are passive.

  • Confronting – This is a project management conflict resolution technique that confronts the problem and the people involved. The aim is to reach an agreement that is able to satisfy the needs of both parties. This technique is used when there is sufficient time, the parties involved have to win, skills are complementary and learning is key in the project.
  • Compromising – Here the project manager tries to find an acceptable solution where both parties would be happy. The aim is to ensure that the project work keeps on going while both parties are at peace in the project. This is also referred to as a give and take solution. This technique is useful when schedule is a major project constrain, nothing is at stake when a compromise is made and it is important to maintain the relationship between both parties.
  • Smoothing – This is a conflict resolution technique that downplays the disagreements but places emphasis on the areas of agreement by the parties involved. Smoothing never solves the problems, but tries to show the unsatisfied parties a reason why they should continue working together even when they have problems.
  • Forcing – This is an autocratic decision. It is mostly a win-lose situation as a party goes out of his way to ensure his work is done at the expense of the other party. The project manager doesn’t discuss his opinions with the team members but forces them to do what he wants. While people say forcing is not a good conflict resolution style, it can be good when stakes are high, a quick decision has to be made, relationship among project members is not important and time is a major project constrain.
  • Avoiding – This is when a withdrawal approach is used by the project manager. The project manager pretends like there is no conflict and allows everybody go about his or her daily activity. This is the worst solution as it is only temporary and the conflict might most likely reoccur. This conflict resolution style is used in a situation where you think the problem would naturally go away, situations where you cannot win or in situations where it is necessary to gain time.

The five conflict resolution techniques are to be used based on the type of conflict that occurs in the project environment. As project managers, we should know that there is no one-size-fits-all conflict resolution method.

Conclusion

Conflict management is a very important aspect of project management as conflicts are bound to arise in almost every project. While some conflicts are not necessarily bad, we must always curtail it before it snowballs into bigger issues that would affect the project success.

We were able to identify the major causes of conflicts in organizations as well as the ways of resolving conflict in an organization. We would like to add that this list is not exhaustive as there might be other causes of conflict and conflict resolution techniques out there.

Hope you had fun reading. Once again, thanks for reading and don’t forget to share and drop your comments below.

Reference

Project management body of knowledge (PMBOK)

Wikipedia

Investopedia