Conflict management

Definition

Conflict can be defined as different objectives and attitudes between two or more parties. Conflict management is the process of identifying and addressing differences that, if left unresolved, could affect objectives.

General

The P3 environment is one where many people come together to achieve objectives. There will inevitably be degrees of conflict concerning all aspects of what needs to be done, how it will be done, and who will do it etc.

Not all conflict is negative. Facilitating healthy conflict without suppression can support group development and learning experiences. Conflict is a necessary component of some team development models but, even there, it must be carefully managed to prevent it becoming counterproductive.

Negative interpersonal conflict generally arises from:

  • disagreement over a task, objective, decision or action;
  • conflicting values;
  • unspoken assumptions;
  • emotion, including stress, passion, anger, fear, envy and excitement;
  • ego, perceived power, influence, and insecurity;
  • sense of uncertainty;
  • miscommunication.

Whenever negative conflict arises it needs to be tackled before it causes damage. Having clearly defined processes will minimise the negative effects of differences and stop them developing into conflict.

The emergence of conflict can be gradual or sudden. Obvious indications include open hostility, lack of cooperation or direct challenge. Discreet or hidden conflict is more subtly expressed through changes in style or volume of communication, opting out, passive resistance, rumour-mongering or thinly veiled negative remarks.

Unresolved conflict can be expensive. It increases uncertainty, damages morale and undermines long-term team harmony. Ultimately this may lead to failure to deliver objectives and an unhealthy corporate culture.

Resolving conflict is a complex skill but identifying specific techniques or approaches helps to understand what is involved and develop the right competences. There are many models for describing conflict resolution including Blake & Mouton, Thomas-Killman and Pruit.

When addressing conflict it is important to distinguish between the personalities involved, the culture of the organisation and the positions being taken. This can defuse tension and facilitate an objective approach. While facts are readily identifiable, assumptions and emotions are often more difficult to elicit.

In resolving conflict, an appropriate mediator is often required. This can sometimes be necessary where employment issues are concerned and expert knowledge is required.

A mediator must be able to set aside beliefs and values to focus upon the issues. This requires the ability to listen actively, succinctly reflect understanding, and facilitate negotiation towards a resolution.

Typical actions for resolving interpersonal conflict may comprise:

  • ensuring an appropriate venue – space, refreshments, accessibility;
  • proposing timings, conduct guidance and objectives for each session;
  • identifying facts, evidence and assumptions;
  • recognising the various levels of stakeholder power and influence;
  • assessing the potential impact of personal views;
  • agreeing the issues to be resolved, prioritising as required;
  • reflecting perspectives, expectations, antagonisms and areas of commonality;
  • defining escalation routes if resolution is not possible.

Managing conflict requires sensitivity and empathy, in conjunction with objectivity and an ethical stance.

Project

Conflict can be reduced at the outset of a project through good project planning and communication. The clear definition of scope, time, costs and risks creates a base document, understood by all the stakeholders, which then provides a common starting point for exploring any future conflict.

Clear governance policies enable communication of dissent and improvements in a formal, constructive way. This will include defined escalation procedures, upwards through the programme or portfolio organisation, or to an external function such as HR.

A project manager needs conflict resolution skills but must also know when to ask for help.

Regardless of the approach used to manage or resolve conflict, the project manager must ensure that the outcome is communicated to all those affected.

Programme

The potential for conflict is greater at programme level for several reasons, including the:

  • emphasis on implementing business change;
  • potential for differing interpretations of the programme vision;
  • dependencies between projects within the programme;
  • diversity and quantity of stakeholders.

As well as dealing with programme-level conflict, programme management also needs to provide support for project teams who are unable to resolve conflicts at the project level.

Although on a different scale from projects, the nature of conflict within a programme is little different from that in a project.

The main difference is the potential for internal conflict between projects. This may arise, for example, from inputs to one project being outputs from another, or competition over limited resources.

Programme managers need to address conflict through effective planning and control. They must also provide arbitration and clear, timely decision making.

Portfolio

Interdependencies between projects and programmes within the portfolio will inevitably lead to conflicts over priorities and limited resources. Clear and visible alignment of portfolios to the organisation’s strategy will aid resolution of conflicts by justifying and contextualising difficult decisions.

The portfolio manager needs to provide an escalation route for conflict resolution that cannot be resolved within the component programmes or portfolios.

It is also conceivable that some conflict may need to be escalated to the appropriate level within the host organisation. A typical example is industrial relations.

 

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