Conflict Resolution

Valarie Griep, MBA, PMP - December 2012

Conflict is a Natural Part of Projects

Projects produce both change and conflict. Conflict is more than simple disagreement. It arises when people feel threatened in some way by another individual, an idea, or a course of action. It is inevitable and a natural result of the changes projects require.

Conflicts can happen in many areas of the project and involve a variety of players. Teams begin as a group of individuals with opinions, ideas, biases, and preferred ways of working and communicating. Stakeholders, both internal and external, often have differing stakes in the outcomes. Project managers have to skillfully navigate these waters and keep the project moving forward productively.

Project Managers Can’t Ignore It

The threat need not be real—the perception of a threat is enough. Conflict is an emotional response to the threat and whoever is representing it. It’s the emotion that can be difficult to work through in order to arrive at a productive resolution with the project players. Although conflict is common, it needs to be managed.

We should start with acknowledging that conflict is not all bad. After all, it means your team and stakeholders are engaged and contributing to problem-solving. Conflict can actually be beneficial because it allows a better solution to come into being. Though conflict often starts with a healthy differing of opinions or outlooks, if ignored, it can harden into dogmatic positions that will be destructive and unproductive. The project manager’s job is to manage the conflict— keep it healthy and don’t let it bog down project work. states some healthy ways to manage conflict:

  • Recognize and respond to the things that matter to the other side of the disagreement
  • Display respectful, non-defensive reactions
  • Be willing to move past the conflict without lingering resentment
  • See compromise and avoid punishing the other side
  • Face the conflict, recognizing its resolution as beneficial for all sides

The project manager must be alert for conflicts and be committed to dealing with them. By addressing conflict early, the response may not require the severe action it could later after positions have hardened and resentments set in.

Deal With It!

There are five main ways to manage typical project conflicts based on the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI). TKI helps us understand how different conflict-handling styles affect interpersonal and group dynamics. In detail, the TKI assessment allows professionals to open a discussion about conflict which reveals patterns, then determines when one conflict behavior is being productive and when choosing another style would be more effective. Each of the conflict responses has its place in the project manager’s toolkit for the variety of situations you will encounter.

  • Withdrawing – being passive or giving up
  • Smoothing – appeasing the other side or avoiding contact…for now
  • Compromising – bargaining or negotiating to get an acceptable resolution
  • Forcing – using positional or personal power to get your way
  • Problem-Solving – identifying the perceived threat and resolving it through open dialogue

Withdrawing and smoothing are temporary methods and don’t aim to resolve the problem. They are best used when disagreement is fairly minor and the stakes are low. Compromising, forcing and problem-solving methods will produce resolution, even though it may only be for the short-term.

With all these methods you must consider trade-offs between your personal goals and your desire to maintain a good relationship with the other party. You must determine if the issue at stake is significant enough to risk hurting the future relationship. Forcing and problem-solving methods will most likely get your needs met but forcing will almost certainly hurt your relationship with the other(s) involved. Smoothing and withdrawing, on the other hand, require you to give up your needs. Smoothing is good for relationship preservation, while withdrawing is a passive means which usually pleases no one.

If you are looking for a more active and positive resolution to the issue at hand, compromise will allow you to get at least some of what you want while preserving relationships. It serves to balance future relationships with project success when each side simply has a different, though valid perspective. But the problem-solving method, taking the most effort and time, will typically result in the best long-term relationships along with essentially obtaining your personal goals. Each side in the conflict can feel validated and it results in everyone buying-in to the outcome.

Conflict Management is a Skill

Your team and other stakeholders will inevitably have conflicts and differences to work through in all phases of your project. The ability to manage them is an important skill for any project manager.

“Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.” William James

If you would like to better understand your personal conflict abilities and how to choose the most effective methods for particular project situations, contact to take the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument.


Helpguide, in collaboration with Harvard Health Publications:

Conflict Resolution Network:

Conflict in Projects:


Arthur Maxwell’s TKI Assessment:

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