Conflict management


Conflict is most usually perceived as something that is negative and almost invariably having a detrimental impact on the achievement of the project, programme or portfolio objectives. Some aspects of conflict can be used positively and it is important to recognise the difference between conflict management and conflict resolution. The latter is only one aspect of the former.

The goals of conflict management are to:

  • utilise the positive aspects of conflict;
  • resolve organisational and interpersonal conflict;
  • minimise the impact of conflict on objectives.

The P3 environment is one where people come together on a temporary basis, in new and changing situations, in order to work together to produce a set of objectives. It’s a situation that is almost designed to create conflict.

Thamhain and Wilemon investigated what aspects of projects create conflict and identified seven main sources, including schedules, priorities and costs. They also noted how these vary in terms of the intensity of the conflict they create during the project life cycle.

While issues of schedule, priority and cost etc. may be contentious, it takes people to cause a conflict. Disagreements can involve any number and variety of parties to the work. It could be two members of the management team, someone in the management team and a supplier or two stakeholders.

Disagreements generally arise through factors such as:

  • conflicting working styles;
  • unspoken assumptions;
  • conflicting perceptions;
  • differing personal values;
  • emotions such as stress, fear and uncertainty;
  • conflicting roles;
  • miscommunication;

and a host of other factors.

There is clearly great potential for conflict to adversely affect the achievement of the objectives. While a P3 manager may be skilled in conflict resolution it is important that conflict management is applied to pre-empt and avoid conflict before it occurs.

Maccoby and Scudder describe a five step process for conflict management with ‘resolution’ being the final step. Given the nature of P3 management, it is not surprising that the steps in this procedure have echoes throughout many other functional procedures.

The P3 manager should anticipate conflict but not necessarily seek to avoid all of it. Some degree of conflict is seen as a necessary part of building a high performing team as illustrated by the ‘storming’ stage of team development in Tuckman’s model. Facilitating healthy disagreement can help develop the individuals and provide learning experiences. This must be carefully managed to prevent it becoming counter-productive.

When negative conflict does inevitably occur it needs to be resolved to minimise the damage caused.

Individual conflicts can emerge suddenly or gradually; they can be a single event or the accumulation of many small events. The intensity of conflict is usually described in terms of the magnitude of the event(s) and their frequency.

Typical indicators of an emerging conflict include hostility, lack of co-operation or an obvious direct challenge. Hidden conflict may be indicated by changes in style or communication, opting out of team activity, passive obstruction or subversive behaviour.

Conflict can be damaging if left unresolved. It creates uncertainty, affects morale and undermines the effectiveness of a team. Eventually this can result in a delay, or even failure, to deliver the objectives.

When attempting to resolve conflict it is useful to distinguish its different components. As Furlong points out, a resolution is easier to find if conflict resolution focuses on factors such as data and structure rather than values and relationships.

For some forms of conflict, a mediator may be useful. This could be a question of authority (e.g. where the sponsor may mediate between the manager and a senior stakeholder) or of expert knowledge (such as where expert knowledge of employment issues is necessary).

A mediator must be focus on the issues rather than the personalities. They must have the ability to listen actively and facilitate negotiation towards a resolution.

Typical actions for the resolution of interpersonal conflict can include:

  • careful choice of venue –  a neutral, comfortable and accessible space;
  • clear time management, guidance on acceptable conduct and objectives for each session;
  • identification of facts and distinguishing assumptions;
  • recognising the different levels of power and influence among the participants;
  • assessing the potential impact of personal values and opinions;
  • reflecting perspectives, expectations, antagonisms and emphasising areas of agreement;
  • defined escalation routes if resolution is not possible

Conflict resolution is a complex skill but identifying specific techniques or approaches helps to understand what is involved and develop the right competences.

There are many models for describing different aspects of conflict resolution. A particularly useful one for the P3 manager is the Thomas-Killman instrument based on Blake and Mouton’s managerial grid. This is designed to identify someone’s natural style for responding to conflict. Different styles are needed in different circumstances but everyone has their own preferred style.

Perhaps the hardest skill in conflict resolution is adopting a style that is personally unnatural but is the right one for the circumstances.


Projects, programmes and portfolios

The overall intensity of conflict will increase as the complexity of the work increases. As projects increase in size and complexity the number and diversity of people involved will increase as will the number of products and targets.

Some projects and all programmes will include change management that must be successful if benefits are to be achieved.

Greater complexity is synonymous with larger numbers of interdependencies (e.g. between projects within a programme) and inter-relationships.

As projects grow into programmes and programmes grow into portfolios, the effort spent on conflict management also grows. The effect will primarily be seen as investment in areas such as stakeholder management, teamwork, risk management and the early stages of the life cycle where most conflict originates.

In programmes and portfolios the management team will have to co-ordinate conflict resolution within the component parts. It may be that a single stakeholder is in dispute with two projects within a programme and these are being resolved differently. A programme or portfolio management team needs to maintain an overview of conflicts being addressed.



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