How to Manage Conflicts on Projects: 5 Proven Ways!

manage conflicts

To manage conflicts project manager has to hone many soft skills as this is something that is part of project manager’s daily routine. And this is not limited to work,  it could be at home, or even during social interactions.

Most common sources of conflicts on projects are people, technology, skills, cost or schedule.

It is quite possible that some people do not get along well, technically competent people have difference of opinions on usage of technology, project managers discover that some people are not suitable for their positions, or some key people are overloaded leading to cost and schedule issues.

This lesson is part of tool and technique part of the project management activity to manage project team performance lesson.

You’d be surprised to see the top reasons for conflicts that attendees of a conference reported. I have included a downloadable infographic at the end of this article that lists the reasons.

Defining Conflict

Although there is no single definition of Conflict, here is one of the accepted definitions: “conflict a situation in which one party perceives that its interests are being opposed or negatively affected by another party”.

Conflict is a common occurrence at work place. It may involve team and customer, organizational needs versus personal needs, employer and employee, project team and support team, or just between members of the same team.

Criteria for strategies to manage conflicts

For conflict management strategies to be successful, it is important to fulfill the following three criteria –

  1. Organization learning and effectiveness – the strategy should encourage critical and innovative thinking to learn the process of diagnosis and intervention.
  2. Needs of stakeholders – the challenge will be involving all parties to have an open mind and participate in conflict management activities.
  3. Ethics – people involved should be ethical in their dealings, especially the leader should be open for new information discovered during the conflict management exercise and behave in unbiased manner.

“Without understanding ethics, conflict cannot be handled”
– Bacheldor

5 key steps to manage conflicts

In the book “Leading in the heat of conflict”, Michael Maccoby and Tim Scudder write about five steps to manage conflict –

  1. Anticipate – be on the lookout for and collect relevant information about a brewing conflict
  2. Prevent – try to employ preventive strategies even before conflict surfaces
  3. Identify – most damage happens when conflict is interpersonal or due to breaking of a set procedure; move in quickly if this is the case.
  4. Manage – see the emotional side involved in the conflict and tread with caution. If possible try to keep emotions in check because usually emotions replace logic and the person may not be in an open frame of mind to accept your suggestions.
  5. Resolve – react without blaming any of the involved parties, try to reason out a resolution through constructive dialog.

Technique of conflict resolution

Dual concern model of conflict resolution assumes that individual’s preferred method of dealing with conflict is based on –

  • Concern for self (assertiveness)
  • Concern for others (empathy)

This model suggests that people behave differently while addressing these two concerns, and choose a style of resolution where these two needs intersect.

Also Read: 5 Motivational Theories That A Project Manager Must Know About!

There are 5 styles in general to manage conflicts –

1. Withdraw/Avoid

In this style the manager just retreats from the conflict situation (either for short term or permanently). Some of the conflicts do get resolved this way, either depending on involved parties’ level of maturity and/or changing environmental conditions.

While this method gives the manager time to think or gather information and come back to resolve using one of the other methods, this delay may aggravate the conflict situation.

2. Smooth/Accommodate

In this style project manager focuses more on areas where there is an agreement between parties, and tends to highlight benefits in order to help parties accept a resolution.

This may be a short term solution but it gives people involved to go back and inspect their positions and rethink about the issue.

3. Compromise/Reconcile

This is to arrive at win-win situation for both the parties while both agree to let go some of their expectations of benefits. This method is useful when goal involved is moderate and stronger methods such as Forcing or Collaborating are not necessary.

PM may also use this style when other methods have failed, and parties are ready for a compromise. Involved parties may not get ALL of what they wanted, but there will be something all to cheer about.

4. Force/Direct

This is more of a win-lose situation where the project manager takes decision without much consideration for the views expressed by the members, and delivers verdict in one’s favor. While this brings a quicker resolution to the conflict it may have negative implications in the long run.

5. Confront/Problem Solve

In this style the project manager listens to various viewpoints, inputs and reasoning from all parties involved in the conflict. And then she resolves the conflict by collaboration and cooperation from the team members from a problem solution perspective.

A PM uses this style when the conflict involves many parties. However this style of resolution can take more time and effort to resolve conflict. Hence this method may not be useful when conflict is time sensitive a resolution is required quickly.

Top reasons for conflicts!

As we’ve seen, understanding causes of conflicts is the first step to manage conflicts.

At the Pink Elephant conference Elizabeth Harrin gave a presentation on managing conflict in projects, wanting to find out what the audience thought. Audience members were asked to write the causes of conflict on sticky notes. The results from the survey have been surprising, nonetheless.

  • 17% said that the cause is lack of direction.
  • 14% people said that Miscommunication is the cause of conflict on projects.
  • 11% attributed it to be budget (this was a surprise finding).

The infographic below shows all the results.


Click on the image to open in a new window (or right click and save to disk)..

manage conflicts: measons for conflict


To manage conflicts the project manager has to venture out of her comfort zone, but it gives an opportunity for tremendous learning in dealing with issues, people and situations. In many organizations Conflict Resolution is a specialized skill. In certain sectors such as Finance, there is a dedicated position for this skill.

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