How to Deal With Conflict in Project Teams
Conflict is an inevitable part of our personal and professional lives. Individual opinions, ideas, beliefs and personality clash for many, many reasons!
Recent research shows that U.S. employees spend 2.1 hours per week involved with conflict, which amounts to approximately $359 billion in paid hours (based on average hourly earnings of $17.95), or the equivalent of 385 million working days. In the same survey, 85% of respondents reported dealing with conflict on some level with a further 29% dealing with conflict almost constantly.
These numbers are quite stark. According to the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK), managing conflict is one of the biggest challenges a project manager faces. Ignoring conflict in project teams is not an option; it must be tackled head-on using the right processes and tools.
What is Conflict?
Conflict results from incompatible goals or competition for scarce resources. Conflict relates to differences in values, attitudes, needs, expectations, perceptions, communication styles, and personalities.
There are a few ways to think about different types of conflicts:
- Interpersonal conflict refers to a conflict between two individuals. This frequently results from differences in personality and opinion.
- Intragroup conflict is a type of conflict that happens among individuals within a team.
- Intergroup conflict takes place when a misunderstanding arises among different teams within an organization, often relating to competing goals and limited resources.
Conflict may also be manifest (escalates quite quickly) or latent, caused by the inability to communicate about the source of the conflict and its impact.
Conflict in Project Teams
Conflict can arise at any time during a project, leading to decreased productivity, loss of creativity and an unwillingness to collaborate. Here are some common issues to watch out for.
- Project Setup: Projects bring together individuals with various levels of experiences from different sectors. Each team member will have their own approach to project setup, methodologies, documentation, reporting and so on. Additionally, the project manager’s own style – authoritarian, collaborative, micromanager, supportive – can create friction within the team.
- Communication: Poor communication is at the root of many failed projects, so it is little surprise that communication leads to team conflict. Without a communication plan, team members quickly become confused about their work, priority tasks, and the overall purpose of the project. Differences in individual communication style also cause tension; some team members may like to record every detail using email whilst others may prefer a quick catch-up as needed.
- Roles and Responsibilities: Problems quickly arise when team members do not know what they should be doing and how their work impacts others.
- Stakeholder Engagement: Too much or too little engagement, frequent change requests, lack of internal buy-in – stakeholders can support or disrupt your project in many ways!
- Scarce Resources: Projects are notoriously difficult to resource, leading to competition within teams and between departments.
Additional sources of conflict can include team history, scope creep, schedule changes, declined change requests, ego, competition for promotion and someone simply having a bad day.
By now, we have established that conflict is unavoidable and has multiple sources. With so many other project issues and challenges to address, it is little wonder that many people prefer to ignore conflict, hoping things will just work themselves out. If left unaddressed, conflict can undermine your authority as a project manager and derail the team.
Conflict management is a difficult yet necessary skill project managers must cultivate. Dealing with conflict effectively involves problem-solving, setting goals, the willingness to compromise, efficient decision making and stepping beyond personality differences.
In the following sections, I will outline the PMBOK approach to conflict management and additional suggestions to get you started.
5 PMBOK Conflict Management Techniques
PMBOK advocate the following five methods when dealing with conflict. The selected approach will depend on the circumstances and your own project management style.
1. Withdraw/Avoid Conflict Management
Temporarily avoiding the situation will give you space to think about the problem from other perspectives and avoid any emotional outbursts. Just don’t withdraw for too long!
2. Smooth/Accommodate Conflict Management
Approach the problem by focusing on areas of agreement rather than differences and look for underlying causes. Persevere with building strong team relationships to help reduce future conflicts.
3. Compromise/Reconcile Conflict Management
Some conflicts cannot be resolved, requiring a compromise that brings some degree of satisfaction to both parties. Pursuing this approach means that you must clearly understand the needs of everyone involved and are willing to make changes to the project to accommodate the solution.
4. Force/Direct Conflict Management
On occasion, you may need to use your position as a manager or leader to enforce a solution. This approach can damage team relations so use cautiously.
5. Collaborate/Problem Solve Conflict Management
Focusing on multiple viewpoints and insights, this technique requires a cooperative attitude and open dialogue. This approach strengthens the team as they work together to solve the problem. However, be prepared to invest time and energy to make this approach work.
Use these suggestions to supplement the PBMOK techniques as needed.
- Prevent Conflict: A good project leader should seek out and address conflict before a difficult situation arises. Pay attention to team performance and interaction, and intervene if needed. Feedback mechanisms such as one-to-one meetings are also a useful way to identify any tensions or issues.
- Define Acceptable Behavior: Make sure that everyone understands company culture and acceptable behaviors. You should define decision-making processes, sources of authority, roles and responsibilities, expectations regarding collaboration and disciplinary procedures. Incorporate these principles into new employee onboarding programs to establish acceptable behavior from Day 1.
- Document methodically: Memories are fuzzy and unreliable! If you do have to manage an issue, be sure to document everything, including meetings and one-to-one conversations. You need access to an accurate, fact-based account should the situation escalate to senior management or HR.
- Use Conflict Constructively: When managed correctly, conflict can lead to new learnings, innovative solutions, and increased team collaboration. Depending on the severity of the conflict, take a step back to analyze the various opinions of the team and the underlying source of conflict. Using the Collaborate/Problem Solve Conflict Management, encourage the team to brainstorm and work together to find a new solution.
No matter how strong your team is, conflict will arise during project execution. From poor project setup to communication issues and scare resources, there are many ways to spark conflict. Deal with conflict in your team directly and proactively.