Conflict Management For Project Managers: 10 Sources of Project Conflict

Conflict Resolution for Project Managers

When Meetings Go Wrong!

Conflict is a reality that we face every day in projects. The constant nature of conflict was brought home to me by Mark Horstman, co-founder of Manager Tools, who stated, “the definition of conflict is two human beings in the same COUNTY.” This month, I will be exploring conflict in projects, the PMBOK’s conflict resolution techniques and the psychology of conflicts.

We all have to face conflict at the office and elsewhere. How well we manage that conflict will have a major impact on the success or failure of our projects. For purposes of this article,

Defining Conflict In War, Sports And Beyond

As a long time student of history, war and violence are the first concepts that come to mind when I think about conflict. For most of us, direct physical violence is unlikely to be a major problem. There are many types of conflict to consider.

  • War: Conflict over territory, resources, ideas and also conflict within (i.e. different strategies on how to win the war)
  • Politics: Elections have an element of conflict because demand (candidates) exceeds supply (elected offices)
  • Sports: In the sports world, we can see two types of conflict: productive, rule-based conflict within the accepted boundaries of the game and destructive (e.g. riots or player fights)
  • Literature: Thinking back to an English class, I remember covering several types of conflict: man against man, man against himself and man against nature. Some commentators have even suggested that literature must have conflict in order engage readers.
  • Business: Conflict abounds in the commercial realm whether it takes the form of legitimate competition, law suits, and corporate espionage.

Conflict In The Workplace: A Few Statistics To Consider

Workplace conflict has significant costs that embark our wellbeing, performance and results. Consider these findings about the impact of conflict around the world:

  • 24% of employees in New Zealand “experienced at least one disagreement or argument at work that distracted or prevented them from doing their job.” (source: NZ Business, October 2014)
  • 60% of human resource management time is spent on managing and resolving workplace conflict. (source: WealthWise, March 2014)
  • S. employees spent 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict. This amounts to approximately $359 billion in paid hours (based on average hourly earnings of $17.95), or the equivalent of 385 million working days in 2008 (source: The Real Cost of Workplace Conflict, Entrepreneur)
  • One third of aggressive workplace behaviours were initiated by the supervisor (How to Reduce Workplace Conflict and Stress by Anna Maravelas).

The final finding suggests that project managers may be responsible for causing conflict. Given that conflict has considerable destructive potential, we need to be cautious about the development of conflict.

Ten Sources of Project Management Conflict

A well run project can be positively inspiring, especially for staff who have an interest in new challenges. However, the added pressure of project constraints such as multiple deadlines and scope changes mean greater likelihood for conflict. Before we can explore conflict management for project managers, we need to understand the causes of conflict.

Which of these sources of project management conflict have you faced?

1) Different Stakeholder Interests

The manufacturing stakeholder advocates for a simple, standardized product that will be easy to manufacture reliably. The marketing stakeholder advocates for a complex product that allows for extensive customization by customers. At first glance, these stakeholders appear locked in conflict.

2) Project Manager Management Style

Consider the case of a project manager who takes a disciplined approach to managing projects and holds staff accountable. Depending on HOW this management style is communicated, unproductive tension and conflict could threaten the project`s success.

3) Project Team History

Have you ever worked with someone that puts you on edge? Or perhaps a person who has a very confrontational, zero sum world view on work? In these cases, conflict is part of the project team from day one.

4) Scope Changes

Imagine you have put three weeks into building a plan to install network infrastructure in a new office building. Then you receive a scope change specifying you need to switch to a new type of equipment (and vendor). Your first reaction may well be anger at the stakeholder – after all, you now have to redo all of the work!

5) Schedule Changes

What comes to mind when you read the word “crashing?” Perhaps you imagine carnage on the road or your computer failing you at an important moment. Yet, “crashing” is a best practice defined in the PMBOK Guide glossary: “a technique used to shorten the schedule duration for the least incremental cost by adding resources.” In practice, crashing can mean overtime work. Absent support and planning, a crashing schedule changes will trigger conflict.

6) Project Failure (or Cancellation)

Working on a doomed project is discouraging! Even if a project fails or is cancelled due to external conditions (e.g. regulatory change, change in financing costs), recriminations and blame are inevitable. Project cancellation may cause significant conflict between the sponsor and the project manager.

7) Declined Change Requests

Change requests are an important tool in managing projects. What if somebody on the project team submits a change request to request additional resources and it is declined? That team member may be angry at having to make do with limited resources.

8) Disagreements With Vendors

Many projects rely on vendors to deliver vital products and services. In many cases, the vendor and project team have different interpretations. Resolving these disagreements is time consuming and throws the project behind schedule. Whether you disagree about quality requirements, warranties or liability, vendor disagreements are a common source of project conflict.

9) Disputes over Project Management Methodology

Successful project management usually entails employing a framework. The project manager may be using the excellent framework defined in the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). In contrast, stakeholders may be unfamiliar and unwilling to submit change requests and interpret standardized status reports. Over time, this disagreement on process leads to stakeholder disengagement.

10) Disagreement over communication methods

For many professionals, there is a sharp line between listeners, who prefer obtaining information through conversation, and readers, who prefer written communication. Disagreements over how often, style and content of communication can be a major source of project conflict.

Share your thoughts in the comments. What are the greatest sources of conflict in your projects?


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8 thoughts on “Conflict Management For Project Managers: 10 Sources of Project Conflict

  1. This simplified preliminary conflict strategies that may be avoided if the project management method is the correct one for the specific project.
    Thank you,
    GCB Warren