How to Deal With Conflict on a Project Team
Wouldn’t it be just great if everyone got along with everyone?

Sadly, that is but a wish; no matter how nice you think you are, conflict is unavoidable when you work with other people. When a group of people work together, you'll find that it's not a matter of if conflict will arise, but when it will.

What causes conflict?

Collaboration always leads to conflict, as people will always have different viewpoints on certain issues. Give them a problem to solve and there's guaranteed to be disagreements on the best way to go about it. Whether your team disagrees over the methods, technology, or even the understanding of the problem itself, progress can only be made if these conflicts are resolved.

Many new project managers soon find that conflict management is one of the hardest tasks they have to deal with. Conflict can stem from any number of factors, but regardless of the cause, they must be dealt with swiftly before it causes the project's demise.

Conflict with Employees
We can agree that conflict is obstructive and potentially destructive, but it doesn't have to be. If handled correctly, conflict can lead to new approaches to problem-solving processes. Some organisational experts say conflict is normal and is a vital ingredient to any business's success. A company culture where team members can disagree with one another, is said to spur innovation and better decision-making. The challenge becomes figuring out which conflicts are healthy and which ones are harmful.

The five modes of conflict resolution

Now that we agree that conflict isn't necessarily a bad thing, how do we keep it from negatively impacting a project team? As conflict management and resolution is a well-debated issue, several methods of resolving conflict have been identified and studied over the years. Most of the go-to manuals for project management outline five modes for conflict resolution:

Avoiding

In this technique, the project manager puts off addressing any conflicting issues until a later date. Some people do this in the hope that the conflict will resolve itself. While this can be used as a temporary solution, it doesn't address the problem and it will continue to occur.

Smoothing

Also referred to as accommodating, smoothing works by emphasising and focusing on the areas of agreement among team members, while any areas of disagreement are downplayed. But because the underlying issue isn't discussed and resolved, conflicts are never really resolved through smoothing.

Forcing

Here, project managers use their authority to “force” an action on the team that is involved in conflict. This style is used when a decision has to be made due to time or cost constraints, and the conflicting parties are not being agreeable. While it can provide a quick resolution, it also comes across as unprofessional and isn't an effective long-term strategy.

Compromise

This method takes the view that relationships between the parties involved are important, therefore both of them are willing to lose something for their common goal. Conflicting parties are encouraged to come to a mutually satisfactory solution – one way managers do this is to remind their teams about the common goal.

Compromise

Confrontation

Widely considered the best method for handling project team conflicts, confrontation works by bringing the conflicting situation into the open where it can be addressed directly. When the problems are fully identified and all sides have been heard, then decisions can be made that will resolve the issue.

Depending on the circumstances, each of these methods have their place in conflict resolution. But more often than not, they leave at least one party unsatisfied with the outcome and project managers soon find that not every conflict can be rectified with a textbook solution.

Dealing with conflict in a project team

To help you deal with project conflicts in a more efficient way, here are my top four “real-life” suggestions for resolving conflicts in a project team.

1) Acknowledge the conflict

It's easier to turn a blind eye on conflicts and hope they go away, isn't it? But in reality, that's never how it plays out. While most conflicts are easy to avoid initially, when they start to have an impact on the success of the project, you need to acknowledge its presence and find ways to resolve it.

2) Agree to a co-operative process

With the conflict acknowledged, a project manager should set the ground rules for its resolution. This starts with everyone involved agreeing to cooperate towards resolving the conflict, which involves getting agreement from team members that they'll put the team and the project first, and set aside any opinion or ideas for the time being. This allows project managers to focus on asking questions to find the specific causes and understand the roots of the conflict.

3) Clarify positions

With the team ready to resolve the conflict, the next step is to understand the situation and where each team member stands. By clarifying people’s positions, you can see whether there are distinct groups within the team, or if it's individual team members that support a particular view. Doing this will help you make sure that each person’s opinion is heard and understood; and for you to see past different emotions and reveal the true nature of the conflict.

4) Collaborate on a solution

With everyone's cards on the table, the project manager should ask the team for a solution. By involving everyone in the resolution process, you ensure that everyone's concerns are taken into account and addressed. By getting them to all agree on the action to be taken, it also adds an element of accountability for everyone concerned.

Teamwork Puzzle

Conclusion

Managing conflict can be both easy and difficult at the same time and, unfortunately, using textbook or cookie-cutter methods of conflict resolution alone won't work. Whether the conflict came about because people don’t know what is expected of them or as a result of a power struggle, swift resolution is the only way to move the project forward. Conflict in project management is inevitable but when properly managed, it can lead to favourable conditions.

For project managers, conflict resolution involves trying to understand the subtleties of a conflict, and learning when to use the different approaches to conflict resolution. There is no one way that will help everyone deal with every single conflict situation, but by taking the time to first acknowledge and understand the cause of the conflict, project managers can develop a resolution style that incorporates different ways of dealing with conflicts.

Don’t shy away from problems; embracing it and managing it quickly will lead to an agile learning team, enhanced communication, and help you and your team get work done more effectively to produce better project outcomes.

Have you tried any of these methods? Did they help resolve the conflict?