Conflicts arise whenever the goals, wants, needs, values, or interests of one person interfere with that of another person. This is a very common phenomenon in any human activity, including organisational projects. Instead of looking at conflicts as a destructive phenomenon, project managers should begin looking at it as opportunities. Conflicts can help the project team identify and manage problems, while also highlighting unforeseen issues. The goal of effective conflict management is to optimise the benefits that the project can derive from the differences of the parties to the conflict.

Sources of Conflict within the Project Life Cycle

Effective project conflict management starts with the realisation and understanding of the potential sources of conflicts within the life cycle of any given project. Thamlian and Wilemon identified the following sources of conflicts in the project life cycle in their 1975 management review, “Conflict Management in Project Life Cycles”.

  • Project Definition Phase

Conflicts that can arise during the first phase of the project cycle include workforce issues, scheduling, administrative procedures, and the identification and setting of priorities. The team may have problems identifying and assigning task roles and responsibilities, as well as the acceptance of such roles.

  • Planning Phase

Prioritisation issues remain the main cause of conflict in this stage. Some people may think that one aspect of the project plan needs to be addressed first before others. Disagreements can also occur over questions about the project schedule, the procedures for effective decision-making, and the availability and accessibility of project resources. Varying interpretations of the project technical requirements can also pose a concern.

  • Execution Phase

One of the most significant cause of conflict during a project’s execution phase is the slippage of schedule. Projects must be completed within a definitive time frame. Unmet schedules can create tension in the project team. Technical problems can also be a cause of conflict during this stage. This is especially true if the project team was not able to foresee technical issues. Staff issues can further complicate the problems associated with schedule slippage and technical issues.

  • Delivery Phase

The principal source of conflict during this stage is schedule slippage. As mentioned, a project needs to produce the deliverables by a specific date. Any issue that can delay the delivery of the final outcomes can cause friction among team members and stakeholders.

Conflict Resolution Models

Two of the most often used conflict resolution models are the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument and the Russo-Ecker Conflict Strategies Inventory.

  • Thomas-Kilmann Model

Kenneth W. Thomas worked with Ralph H. Kilmann in the development of the Conflict Mode Instrument in 1974. The model assumes that conflict resolution can be one of 5 types, depending on the mixture of cooperativeness and assertiveness of the persons involved. The 5 conflict styles are as follows.

  • Avoiding – One or both parties are both uncooperative and unassertive. They prefer to withdraw from the conflict or refuse to acknowledge and address the conflict.
  • Accommodating – The person is cooperative, but unassertive. He is submissive, content on the acknowledgment and acceptance of the other party’s explanation of the issue. He lets the other party win.
  • Compromising – The person is both moderately cooperative and assertive. Both parties of the conflict receive enough of what they desire, allowing them to feel satisfied. Both parties are willing to give up something.
  • Competing The person is assertive, but is uncooperative. He doesn’t show willingness to negotiate or allow the other party to express his opinions.
  • Collaborating – Both parties display assertiveness and a high degree of cooperation. Both are willing to work towards the resolution of the conflict. There is mutual understanding that stems from the thoughtful consideration of the unique views of each party.

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  • Russo-Eckler Model

Eileen M. Russo and Matthew Eckler developed the Conflict Strategies Inventory in 2004. It bears close resemblance to the Thomas-Kilmann Model in that the authors only used two different terms for “accommodating” and “collaborating”. Russo and Eckler used “smoothing” and “integrating” instead.

  • Avoiding – Either or both parties withdraw or stay away from the conflict.
  • Smoothing – One party ignores his own goals and gives in to the goals of the other party.
  • Competing – One of the parties forces his interests or views about the conflict with utter disregard for the other party’s side.
  • Compromising Both parties are willing to give in to some of each other’s demands, while satisfying some of their own goals.
  • Integrating – Both parties work to achieve a mutually-beneficial and satisfying outcome.

Positive vs. Negative Conflict

Both the Thomas-Kilmann Model and the Russo-Eckler Model assumes two very distinct behaviour patterns associated with conflict resolution.

Collaboration, integration, and compromise can be considered as behavioural signs of a more positive attitude towards conflict. Positive conflict motivates parties to consider each other’s ideas, while also exploring alternatives. Parties clarify and reassess the issue to arrive at a mutually-satisfying solution. This strengthens team cohesion and commitment.

Avoidance, smoothing, accommodation, and completion can be viewed as negative conflict resolution behaviours. There is discrimination, harassment, or even bullying. This diverts attention to the emotion of one party from the issue at hand. Negative conflict is polarising and can lead to team demoralisation.

Areas Where Conflicts May Arise

There are many areas where conflicts can arise within any given project. The most common ones are as follows.

  • Project Costs

This is the most significant area of conflict, especially between project sponsors, stakeholders, and the project owner. Budgetary concerns and the current financial standing of the organisation can always be an area where conflicts can arise.

  • Personalities

Differences in personalities are always a given in any organisation. The aggressive personality of some can be overwhelming for others. This can undermine the success of the project.

  • Professional Competencies

Each member of the project team has his own set of professional competencies. Unfortunately, they may also have different perceptions on how to get things done. Personal and professional biases can also work against the team.

  • Communication

Vague or unclear communication can always lead to conflict. If one wants to avoid conflict from this area, then one should foster an atmosphere where anyone can communicate his thoughts without being ridiculed.

Conflicts can be constructive circumstances that can lead to the success of the project. If not managed well, there is a chance that the conflict will lead to division within the project team. This can result in the delay of the project deliverables, if not a reduction in the quality of the final outcomes.

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