Conflict Resolution in Project Management

Amy Ohlendorf
Information Systems Analysis
MSIS 488, Fall 2001

Introduction | Project Management Overview | Understanding Conflict |
Approaches to Conflict Resolution | Conclusion | References


Conflict in project management is inevitable. The potential for conflict in information systems development projects is usually high because it involves individuals from different backgrounds and orientations working together to complete a complex task. The cause of conflict in team projects can be related to differences in values, attitudes, needs, expectations, perceptions, resources, and personalities. Proper skills in dealing with conflict can assist project managers and other organization members to handle and effectively resolve conflicts which can lead to a more productive organization as a whole.

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Project Management Overview

Project management is a methodological approach to achieving agreed upon results within a specified time frame with defined resources. (1) It involves applying knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to a wide range of activities in order to meet the requirements of a project. The major objectives of project management include performance, cost, and time goals. (2) The focus is to meet customer expectations, deliver projects within budget, and complete projects on time. Project management is helpful in achieving these objectives by organizing, planning, monitoring, controlling, and correcting the project activities. These activities consist of creating a workable project environment, keeping the work environment healthy, planning the essential activities to build the information system or product, and controlling execution of the plan. (3)

Using project management principles brings value to an organization. Applying these principles give managers the ability to establish success measures, quantify value proportionate with cost, use optimal organizational resources, allow customer focus and alignment, incorporate quality principles, implement the practice of strategic plans, resolve problems more quickly, work within the scope of the project, address future risk before becoming a problem, and create a higher quality product the first time. The time and resources put into project management will make up for the cost over the life of the project. (4, 5)

Project management relies on proven and repeatable processes and techniques. These processes and techniques are utilized to coordinate resources to accomplish predictable results. (5) Although success is never guaranteed, a project is more likely to be successful when conventional project management processes are practiced. The four phases of the project management process are explained below. (6)

  1. Project Initiation
    The first phase of the process involves performing activities to evaluate the project size, scope, and degree of difficulty and to establish procedures for supporting later project activities. Examples of activities at this phase are forming a project initiation team, building the customer relationship, developing effective management procedures, and constructing a project workbook.
  2. Project Planning
    The second phase of the process involves defining clear, distinct activities and work required to complete the activities for each individual project. Examples of activities at this phase are defining the project scope, defining the work breakdown structure, estimating resource requirements, outlining communication procedures among managers, team members, and the customer, identifying and evaluating risk, and developing a Baseline Project Plan.
  3. Project Execution
    The third phase of the process involves implementing the plans created in the earlier phases, Project Initiation and Project Planning. Examples of activities at this phase are executing the baseline plan, managing changes to the baseline plan, monitoring project progress, and communicating project status to managers, team members, and the customer.
  4. Project Closedown
    The final phase of the process involves bringing the project to an end. Examples of activities at this phase are evaluating team members, conducting final project reviews, and closing the customer contract.

The project manager is responsible for carrying out the initiation, planning, execution, and closedown phases of a project. The success of a project relies strongly on the project manager. The role of this person is to evaluate project feasibility and to create the plan of activities required to meet the objectives. This individual must be able to build an environment in which the project can be executed while protecting the environment from factors that could impede progress, planning the work that has to be completed to reach the goal, and keeping the course of the project in control. (7) It is important for a project manager to possess a diverse set of skills - management, leadership, technical, customer relationship, and conflict management.(6)

Managers spend 42% of their time on reaching agreement with others when conflict occurs. (8) Conflict management within a team environment requires the ability to solve problems, set goals, compromise, settle personality differences, and resolve conflicts. Training for project managers in this area is necessary for their success, as they are typically responsible for handling conflict during a project. (9) The remainder of this paper will address conflict and its resolution in project management.

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Understanding Conflict

Conflict is "a situation of competition in which the parties are aware of the incompatibility of potential future positions and in which each party wishes to occupy a position which is incompatible with the wishes of the other." (10) Conflict is viewed as a cycle: "As with any social process, there are causes; also, there is a core process, which has results or effects. These effects feed back to effect the causes." (11) To understand conflict further, the situation must include elements of interdependence, emotions, perceptions, and behaviors. (12) For example, conflict occurs between parties whose tasks are interdependent, who are angry with each other, who perceive the other party as being at fault, and whose actions cause a business problem.

Conflict can be constructive and healthy for an organization. It can aid in developing individuals and improving the organization by building on the individual assets of its members. (13) Conflict can bring about underlying issues. It can force people to confront possible defects in a solution and choose a better one. (14) The understanding of real interests, goals and needs is enhanced and ongoing communication around those issues is induced. In addition, it can prevent premature and inappropriate resolution of conflict. (15) Constructive conflict occurs when people change and grow personally from the conflict, involvement of the individuals affected by the conflict is increased, cohesiveness is formed among team members, and a solution to the problem is found. (10) However, if conflict is not managed properly, it can be detrimental to an organization by threatening organizational unity, business partnerships, team relationships, and interpersonal connections. (16) Deconstructive conflict occurs when a decision has not been found and the problem remains, energy is taken away from more important activities or issues, morale of teams or individuals is destroyed, and groups of people or teams are polarized. (10)

Destructive conflict has a predictable pattern known as the Drama Triangle. (17) By learning how to identify these unproductive roles and how to effectively handle each role player, managers can prevent some conflicts from occurring and resolve those that do. Most individuals know how to assume the following three roles:

  1. Persecutor refers to a person who uses aggressive behavior against another person, attacking the intended victim. An attack can be direct or indirect and be physical, verbal, or both. The persecutor's actions deliver a message that "you are not okay" while making the persecutor feel righteous and superior.
  2. Victim refers to a person who uses nonassertive behavior so others view them as "I'm not okay." This behavior encourages others to either rescue or persecute the victim. Victims will feel helpless, inadequate, sad, scared, or guilty. The victim role is often used because the individual is feeling stressed, has low self-esteem, or is being persecuted by another.
  3. Rescuer refers to a person who uses either nonassertive or agressive behavior. Individuals become rescuers because they will not say "no" and unwillingly assume the responsibility of solving the victim's problem. In contrast, others will assume the rescuer role to demonstrate superiority over the victim.

These roles are learned in early childhood and are used throughout adulthood. They involve the perception of oneself or someone else as inadequate or not acceptable. The aggressive and nonassertive behaviors that are present in these roles lead to win-lose outcomes and do not provide an opportunity for a win-win resolution.

It is important for a project manager to understand the dynamics of conflict before being able to resolve it. The internal characteristics of conflict include perception of the goal, perception of the other, view of the other's actions, definition of problem, communication, and internal group dynamics. (18)

These characteristics can strongly influence the behavior style of group members and affect the potential outcome of the conflict. In some instances, the project manager's lack of skills to effectively manage and resolve conflict can be the problem.

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Approaches to Conflict Resolution

In Project Management: A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling, and Controlling, five modes for conflict resolution are explained and the situations when they are best utilized are identified. (19) These modes are Confronting, Compromising, Smoothing, Forcing, and Avoiding.

Confronting is also described as problem solving, integrating, collaborating or win-win style. It involves the conflicting parties meeting face-to-face and collaborating to reach an agreement that satifies the concerns of both parties. This style involves open and direct communication which should lead the way to solving the problem. Confronting should be used when:

Compromising is also described as a "give and take" style. Conflicting parties bargain to reach a mutually acceptable solution. Both parties give up something in order to reach a decision and leave with some degree of satisfaction. Compromising should be used when:

Smoothing is also referred to as accommodating or obliging style. In this approach, the areas of agreement are emphasized and the areas of disagreement are downplayed. Conflicts are not always resolved in the smoothing mode. A party may sacrifice it's own concerns or goals in order to satisfy the concerns or goals of the other party. Smoothing should be used when:

Forcing is also known as competing, controlling, or dominating style. Forcing occurs when one party goes all out to win it's position while ignoring the needs and concerns of the other party. As the intesity of a conflict increases, the tendency for a forced conflict is more likely. This results in a win-lose situation where one party wins at the expense of the other party. Forcing should be used when:

Avoiding is also described as withdrawal style. This approach is viewed as postponing an issue for later or withdrawing from the situation altogether. It is regarded as a temporary solution because the problem and conflict continue to reoccur over and over again. Avoiding should be used when:

Researchers examined the impact of the conflict resolution styles used by individuals in shaping their work environment and affecting the level of ongoing conflict and stress. (20) Results of the study showed that individuals who use a certain style to conflicts can create environments with varied degrees of conflicts. Individuals who use more of a confronting style create an environment with lower levels of task conflict, which reduces relationship conflict and stress. Whereas, individuals who use more of the forcing or avoiding styles tend to create an environment with more task conflict, which increases relationship conflict and stress. The study suggests conflict develops not only in environmental circumstances but in the styles used by individuals when confronted with a conflict. The manner in which a person responds to organizational dissension and uncertainty will influence the responses of others and the individual's work experience.

Another study went a step further and examined the relationship between the three forms of organizational justice (procedural, distributive, and interactional) and the conflict resolution styles. (21) The researchers concluded that higher interactional justice was related to greater use of the confronting style when distributive justice was low and procedural justice was high. Use of the avoiding style was positively related to distributive justice. This study suggests when employees perceive organizational justice, they are likely to use more cooperative modes, such as confronting, smoothing, and compromising, in dealing with conflict. Results from this study have implications for organizations. Managers at all levels of an organization should be attentive to enhancing employee perceptions of organzational justice in order to encourage the use of more cooperative styles for organizational conflict management.

Barki and Hartwick tested a model of how members of information systems development (ISD) projects perceive interpersonal conflict and examined the relationships between interpersonal conflict, conflict management styles, and ISD outcomes. (22) In the study, interpersonal conflict was defined as "a phenomenom that occurs between interdependent parties as they experience negative emotional reactions to perceived disagreements and interference with the attainment of their goals." The results suggest that individuals' assessments of interpersonal conflict were formed based on disagreement, interference, and negative emotion. Interdependence was not a factor in their assessment. Negative emotion was found to be a significant part of an individuals' perception of interpersonal conflict. Although conflict management styles were shown to have positive effects on ISD outcomes, the negative effects of interpersonal conflict on the outcomes were not alleviated. Regardless of how the conflict was managed or resolved, the study demonstrated that the impact of interpersonal conflict was perceived to be negative. The researchers concluded that management and satisfactory resolution of interpersonal conflict are important. However, prevention of interpersonal conflict should be the greater focus.

Al-Tabtabai and colleagues undermine the modes of conflict resolution and propose a conflict resolution technique using a cognitive analysis approach. (23) This approach identifies a main source of conflict as the cognitive differences between parties. Feedback is presented that gives analysis of each individual's judgement and comparisons with the counterpart's judgement. This cognitive feedback provides insight to conflicting parties and gives them an opportunity to reach an acceptable resolution to the conflict. The proposed systematic methodology to conflict resolution identifies and measures the cues, distal variable, and judgements and determines the relationships between these variables. The six steps of this methodology are listed below.

  1. Indentification of the Conflict Domain
  2. Generation of Conflict Cases
  3. Exercise of Judgement
  4. Analysis of the Results
  5. Communication of the Judgement Differences (Cognitive Feedback)
  6. Negotiation Among Conflicting Parties

The use of the cognitive analysis approach resulted in more agreement among the parties in conflict. Cognitive feedback provided information on reasons why the disagreement occurred among the parties and on areas that needed to be addressed to reach an agreement. This approach allowed the project members involved in the conflict to concentrate on the real differences that provoked the disagreement rather than only discussing the effects of the conflicting situation. The findings from this study suggest the use of cognitive feedback can be effectively applied to conflict resolution.

Active listening is a proven technique managers can use to help resolve conflict. (17) Developing this skill takes practice, but it can be extremely effective when mastered. Listening allows the conflict to take its natural course by giving individuals the opportunity to disagree, express strong opinions, and show passion for ideas. A respect for individual differences is demonstrated and an environment of understanding is fostered. Listening is helpful in achieving a winning resolution by enabling an employee to identify the criteria that is considered an acceptable outcome. When a manager is able to understand the needs and interests of individuals, the chances of satisfactorily resolving the conflict for both parties are increased. As a result of this process, trust and a relationship bond will form preparing individuals to listen also to the needs of the manager. (15)

An awareness of the potential approaches to conflict resolution and the understanding of their consequences can provide project managers with a invaluable set of tools to create an optimal work environment.

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Conflict in project management is not necessarily unfavorable when properly managed. Several advantages have been identified such as increasing personal growth and morale, enhancing communication, and producing better project outcomes. However, conflict can be the decline of an organization if it is not effectively managed. The challenge for organizational leaders and project managers is to try to maintain the right balance and intensity of conflict in project management. By utilizing project management principles, understanding the dynamics of conflict, and learning approaches to conflict resolution, managers will be able to establish an environment in which creativity and innovation is encouraged and project goals are accomplished.

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