Conflict Management and The PMBOK Guide

The Project Managers Book of Knowledge tells us that conflict is inevitable. Because of that, they have a significant amount of information on how to deal with conflict. Specifically, they have five techniques for the project manager to use to manage or eliminate conflict. Keep in mind that the PMBOK is written collaboratively and offers techniques that you may not apply to your current projects, but you might find the need at some point.

  1. Withdraw/Avoid Conflict Management

PMBOK Definition: “Retreating from an actual or potential conflict situation; postponing the issue to be better prepared or to be resolved by others.”

On some projects, this can be an ideal way to commit to progress. It is not so much an avoidance technique as it is a way to ensure forward momentum on a project while keeping conflict at a minimum. It is ideal for short-term projects where the team may not work together again, and there is no need for immediate intervention.

  1. Smoothing/Accommodating Conflict Management

PMBOK Definition: “Emphasizing areas of agreement rather than areas of difference; conceding one’s position to the needs of others to maintain harmony and relationships.”

This strategy is useful for projects over a few weeks, and where teams are starting to form. It stresses the importance of the team by emphasizing professional relationships. Pointing out common ideas, or discussing the conflict’s impact on the team are strategies used in this form of conflict management. It is important as a project manager that you understand the conflict, and the parties involved. Some people are less comfortable using this technique as you become somewhat of a therapist in the process.

  1. Compromise/Reconcile Conflict Management

PMBOK Definition: “Searching for solutions that bring some degree of satisfaction to all parties to temporarily or partially resolve the conflict.”

Sometimes, you just can’t win. This is my take on this approach, and it reflects on the infrequency in which I use it. Compromise is essentially both parties giving something up. It is the opposite of win-win. I only resort to this method if the project is at a standstill and as the PM, you have to be the arbiter of forward progress. Democracy in projects sometimes just has to go away for the benefit of the client,

  1. Force/Direct Conflict Management

PMBOK Definition: “Pushing one’s viewpoint at the expense of others; offering only win-lose solutions, usually enforced through a power position to resolve an emergency.”

This is the “my way or the highway” method. In some projects, you just have to force the issue to resolve the conflict. The PMBOK definition seems to indicate that this can be at someone else’s expense, but in reality, this is not always the case. Think of a project where safety is involved. The team may not want to use personal protective gear. As the project manager, your decision may make people grumble, but the team doesn’t lose due to forced compliance.

The other aspect of this technique is that the project manager must have the ability or authority to push the viewpoint. This is imperative for the process to be efficient. Overusing this method of conflict resolution can lead to more conflict in the end.

  1. Collaborate/Problem Solve Conflict Management

PMBOK Definition: “Incorporating multiple viewpoints and insights from differing perspectives; requires a cooperative attitude and open dialogue that typically leads to consensus and commitment.”

This seems similar to the smoothing technique mentioned above, but in that method, the problem isn’t always solved, the priority to identify areas in agreement. This method focuses on solving the conflict. This method is typically used in high performing teams that have worked on successful projects where trust is highly evident.

This technique can be disadvantageous, as it requires a significant amount of energy and time. If, as a project manager, you are new to this team or personnel management in general, this is not a technique to apply to an issue.

Final thoughts

As mentioned earlier, these are the methods and techniques outlined by the PMBOK, they don’t work in all situations, but all are worth a review if you find your team in conflict during a project. I am interested in hearing from others on this topic. What have you found works best? Do you have a go-to technique? Let me know at jchamberlain@ktlsolutions.com.

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