The Secret To Understanding Project Conflict

Confrontations or conflicts are common in project management, and learning how to manage them is an important skill that needs to be developed.

Unfortunately or fortunately, depending upon how you look at it, some confrontations are important and necessary. They help keep projects on track and they help identify those times when we have gone astray or those times  when it might be in the best interest of the project to reconsider how we are approaching a task or activity. Yet there are those confrontations that waste time, increase tension, delay progress and take much too much of our psychological space.

Indeed, there are different types of conflicts. Some are necessary, others a burden.

But it is amazing how some people and some groups will go to great lengths to avoid any conflict. And it is equally amazing how some teams will silently suffer as conflict flourishes and is left unchecked.

So the first step in managing conflict might be to identify the different types of conflict. By naming them we have a better chance of recognizing them when they occur and managing them before they do damage.

Different Types
At least five types of conflict environments can be identified. 

When conflict is suppressed the team appears to function smoothly. The outside observer sees no sign of conflict. No one offers any criticism or even suggests that changes need to be made.  The culture is one of silence. It is characterized by such expressions as “She’s the boss” or “If that’s what they want, then I’m not going to argue.” How about the classic, “You can’t fight city hall.”

Often the absence of conflict may be a warning sign that there is too much control or that the culture discourages participation and collaboration. Often this occurs in project cultures where there is high power distance between management and team members.

Sometimes suppression is a consequence of Group Think,   a term suggesting that social pressures and conflict avoidance overtake any interest in raising questions and entertaining contrary points-of-view. It is the phenomenon where the project team overestimates the infallibility of its judgment.

Sometimes the worst offenders are mature bureaucracies that suppress dissent as they create an increasing number of rules and procedures  in the interest of maintaining the bureaucracy and stifling dissent.


Sometimes steps are carefully taken to structure the environment in such a way that avoids confrontation and conflict. We can call this a work-around.

While engaged in a large international science project, and discussing project conflicts with a senior project leader, I was told this story.  The international partners in another major science project were unable to agree on a governance structure capable of managing a large project across several participating countries.  It was difficult to reach consensus because each of the participating countries had committed considerable funds to support the joint project and in return expected that their research institutions and universities would be recognized for their expertise and work appropriately assigned to them. However, the scientific expertise overlapped in many ways and what needed to be resolved was where the basic research and engineering efforts would take place. Unfortunately, negotiations failed to resolve these conflicts and the solution was to create parallel administrative and work structures in each country. It was a solution that, in the short run, resolved the international conflict. But, as you would expect, the consequences of that strategy became evident when it came time to integrate these efforts.  The results were a disaster and the project failed.  The lesson was simple: work around the problem and suffer the consequences later.

There is another variant of the work-around strategy. It occurs when there is an effort to exclude external constituents and prevent them from participating during the project life cycle.  One example, not uncommon, occurs when software development teams exclude end-users. Including them would be to invite conflict and it seems much easier, in the face of unyielding budgets and tight schedules, to work-around them.


A very reasonable view of conflict is to assume that it is necessary but that it needs to be deliberately managed.  Conflict, according to this view, is accepted as a natural part of the team process.  It is an important way to introduce new ideas and to make mid-stream corrections in response to new information or changing environments.

There are many examples.  Boeing included customers and suppliers on design teams during the design of the Boeing 777.  When conflicts occurred, team members were encouraged to express their concerns to the team and their leaders.  If an individual concluded that his or her concerns were not taken seriously they were encouraged to speak to managers at the next higher level.  At Nokia, design for new cell phone products was opened to users who were encouraged to submit new product ideas over the internet.  Ar Merck Pharmaceuticals, after the approval and release of several drugs led to recalls and legal suits, began encouraging drug development teams to express their concerns about drug safety and efficacy. When the evidence was clear project managers are now encouraged to recommend a halt to the project.

But the process of managing conflict also requires that dysfunctional conflict must be identified and boundaries placed on the behavior of those people who may become a negative influence on the project if their behavior is left unchecked. 

When conflict is out-of-control, individuals or groups find it difficult working together. Many issues are disputed, suggestions are criticized, and group tension is high. As a result team and project performance suffers.

Further, the longer this situation exists the worse it may become and the more difficult it may be to bring it under control.

Sometimes nothing can be done short of reconfiguring the team.

The US Congress, under President George Bush, was unable to transcend partisan politics and make progress on many pressing domestic and foreign policy issues. Republicans saw problems from one perspective and Democrats from another. Few were willing to “cross the aisle,” and there was little that could be done to resolve the standoff. It was beyond control.  Meanwhile, voters reflecting their frustration with Congress, “reconfigured the team” by voting out many incumbents in the 2006 off-year election.

Unresolved conflict occurs when both sides reach an impasse. Sometimes a third party can be called in to help but there are many occasions when each side is so entrenched that an acceptable resolution is hopeless and the plug has to be pulled.

Sometimes the impasse goes on and on.

In 1997, the Waterloo Regional Police Services embarked on a project to link the information systems supporting police activities in the southern Ontario region of Canada known as the Golden Horseshoe.  Until then information was primarily local; information systems were incapable of sharing data.  For example, when a car was stopped in one region for a routine traffic violation, police in a different region would be unaware that the same vehicle was stolen hours before.  The design for the new system was developed by a team composed of personnel from each of the participating agencies.  Requests for proposals were sent to several software vendors yet only one vendor replied. A contract was signed and the project stared. Ten years later the project had yet to be completed. Conflict after conflict went unresolved, held up the progress of the project, yet the plug was never pulled.


The Single Most Important Step in Addressing the Conflict

The next time you are in a situation where conflict occurs, ask yourself what kind of conflict is it? By asking this question you remove yourself from the dynamics of the conflict and observe the conflict from the “balcony.”  Only by going to the balcony can you begin to address what needs to be done. Only by going to the balcony can you regain control and manage the conflict. So begin by naming the conflict and then determining the control you have over resolving the situation.


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