From conflict to collaboration

beyond project success

Diana Mekelburg, Lead Consultant, Extreme Project Management

The real price of conflict is much greater than its impact on your current project. Yet, conflict can help you build a better product and help your project team reach its full potential. As project manager, you can manage the inevitable conflicts—deadlines, resources, etc.—in your current projects to ensure better collaboration in future projects. By anticipating and responding to conflict, you can redirect damaging conflict to more beneficial uses in the project.

Project Management = Conflict Management

Projects today are influenced by more conflicting expectations that ever before. Both customers and management want products faster and cheaper. Skilled resources are on the corporate endangered list, caught in a tug of war between conflicting strategic initiatives. Meanwhile, the increasing cost of defects has expanded expectations for product quality. More work is being outsourced to vendors who have very different criteria for performance and compensation.

The obvious danger for project managers is the negative effects of conflicts on project performance by lowering morale and reducing productive cooperation. The less obvious effect is the deterioration of trust between stakeholders, which lasts beyond the time span of current project and undermines future project success. Unless conflicts are resolved effectively, they can permanently damage essential relations between the various project stakeholders, because they can no longer expect others to act in a predictable, compatible way. A vicious circle results. Without trust, minor disagreements become major battles, and conflict becomes the norm, rather than the exception, further eroding trust.

What is Conflict?

“Conflict is any situation where your concerns or desires differ from another person's,” according to Thomas and Kilmann (1974). This modern definition of conflict no longer includes a heightened level of hostility. The emotional quality of conflict can range from a friendly discussion to uncontrolled fighting. Many terms are used interchangeably with the term “conflict.” Exhibit 1 differentiates these terms.

Exhibit 2 gives examples of each term for three project management areas.

The Costs and Benefits of Conflict

Conflict is no longer viewed as an aberration. It is now considered a natural outgrowth of human interaction.

Harmful Conflict

When conflict is unmanaged, it can damage relationships between groups and between individuals. Lines are drawn, and assumptions about future actions, and intentions are made. It hurts performance on your current project, and it poisons the environment for future projects.

Beneficial Conflict

Managed conflict can allow your project team to reach its full potential. It can improve the team's creativity in problem solving and reaping the rewards of good business relations with the rest of the organization.

You may be wondering, “What's wrong with harmony and tranquility?” Without disagreement or conflict, the project team can become static or apathetic. Because they are unwilling to encourage conflict, they are more likely to be unresponsive to the pressure for necessary change or innovation. It is easy for a group that insists on harmony to shut out alternatives that disagree with their accepted convictions.

Causes of Conflict

Conflict occurs when actions and expectations differ. Actions result from a combination of:

• Ingrained assumptions about life—group and individual

• Espoused values reflecting our ideals—group and individual

• Immediate situation—perceived uniquely by each individual.

Groups build up values and assumptions, based on their history of success. We observe an action and tend to attribute assumptions and values to the actor. We perceive the immediate situation in our own way and cannot see it the way others do. We often attribute disagreements to personalities without taking into account the effect of cultures.

Exhibit 1.


Exhibit 2.


What Is Conflict Management?

The traditional philosophy of conflict resolution is to focus on solving the immediate problem. However, this method rarely gets to the heart of the conflict. The complaint may be only the most convenient way to express a much deeper and larger set of misgivings, built up over a history of conflicts.

Managed conflict is conflict that has been redirected from hostility to beneficial problem solving. Managed conflict is not conflict that has been suppressed. Suppressed conflict usually reappears in more hostile forms later.

How well you manage conflict depends on Your Skill + The Situation + Your Preferences.

Principles of Conflict Management in Projects

The following nine principles demonstrate the influence that conflict management can have on a project.

1. Unmanaged conflict can cause your project to fail.

2. Handling unmanaged conflict can use up all your time and energy.

3. Unmanaged conflict can destroy business relationships, so that future projects are also doomed.

4. Conflict is inevitable in the project environment.

5. Managed conflict, however, can introduce better methods and products.

6. Effective project managers proactively manage conflicts.

7. There are many methods for resolving conflict.

8. Collaboration has the most potential for improving product, processes, and business relations.

9. Managing conflict requires concept, planning, implementation, and closeout—the standard PM process.

Consider this situation. The project sponsor has signed off on the project's requirements and plan. You find out the next day that he has been fired. It seems that he and his supervisor, a corporate vice president, didn't agree on much. You've heard that the vice president has selected someone from an entirely different operational area to replace the fired employee temporarily until a permanent replacement is found.

The conflicts that could arise as a result of this change are broad reaching. Funding, deadlines, resources, and even the continuation of the project itself could now be challenged. As project manager, you will have to respond to each of these conflicts as they arise, or you can mitigate their effects by anticipating them and managing them before the come to a head. You may find that you must spend a majority of your time compensating for this change. This change in your project's validity according to the project sponsor could have significant effects on other projects, already planned for future implementation. Much of this diversion could have been mitigated, of course, if you had perceived the background conflict between your sponsor and his superior.

Conflict Management Balance

Managing conflict in projects requires maintaining a balance between the project's commitment and its environment.

1. Forming and executing the project's commitments:

• Budgets—funds allocation and release

• Deadlines—deliverables, and milestones

• Resources—assignment and fulfillment

• Quality—features and worthiness (“good enough”)

2. Recognizing the project environment:

• Interactions—how people/groups communicate

• Culture—what groups value and how they behave

• Trust—the quality of personal/group relationships

• Expectations—what people/groups believe they deserve.

The Conflict Management Process

The process for managing conflict is a repetitive set of actions that may be performed in any order as needed to anticipate or mitigated the specific conflict situation.

Prepare for Conflict

The first step in preparing for conflict is to identify the key players in the project whose expectations or concerns may differ from those of other key players. Determining the motivations for and importance of their differing expectations or concerns is the next step. Every issue uncovered that could have consequential effects on the project must be researched and understood.

Exhibit 3. Major Commitment Points


Mitigate Hostilities

Ultimately, if conflict is inevitable, the time and place for resolving it must be mutually agreed to. The earlier a conflict is addressed, the less likely the conflict will grow to a level of damaging hostility. Throughout this process, the overall goals of the project may need to be continually reconfirmed.

Select Conflict Resolution Methods

There are five different modes of conflict resolution, as described later in this paper. Choosing the appropriate mode should not be one-sided. All the key participants need to the involved, both in recognizing their automatic response to conflict and in selecting the mode that will benefit the project and the participants' relationships most.

Follow Through

Like any other project management practice, planning and preparation are not enough. Because the full participation of all the key players is required for successful conflict management, everyone involved must be motivated to share the responsibility for managing their conflicts. The actions required as a result of the ongoing management of a conflict must also be monitored and evaluated. Any shortcomings in performance or outcome of these actions must be responded to.

Be Flexible

The complexity and long-range effects of project conflicts means that conflict rarely can be rigidly controlled. Although planning for managing conflict is crucial, it must be flexible enough to adjust to changing perceptions and relationships throughout the conflicts' life cycle.

Anticipating Conflict

Managing conflict requires continual work by the project manager over the life of the project. It is crucial for the project manager to understand that conflicts are not single points on the project timeline. They may first appear as isolated issues or problems but typically start much earlier as an accumulation of miscommunication and missed opportunities.

Once visible problems surface, damage may have already been done. To avoid being caught off-guard by conflict, the project manager must make sure that the methods a project will use for conflict management are documented during project communication planning. Having the project stakeholders agree to these methods early in the project helps start the culture change needed to move from blame to acclaim.

Early Detection

In their drive to meet project constraints, it's easy for project managers to fix their focus on the project plans and miss the subtle clues that signal impending conflict. A way to avoid this is to frequently “look sideways” at the project. By taking a different perspective, you are more likely to see what is normally not obvious. For example, when collecting estimates, you want to pay attention to any significant difference between estimates, especially when using the optimistic-pessimistic-most-likely method. Early in the project, if participants are not at least mildly enthusiastic, it may indicate an underlying conflict. Similarly, a reluctance to commit to project responsibilities typically results from inconsistent expectations or concerns. Excessive reviews are required of any work products is another symptom of pending conflict.

By staying in touch with the project participants, you will be able to learn about changes in the project's environment earlier than if you are isolated. One way to accomplish this is through what's called “MBWA” or “Management by Wandering Around.” If this is not possible, enlisting the help of a “circuit rider” could give you the insight you need. A circuit rider is an independent confidant who makes the rounds within any group inside or outside the project to uncover problems early.

Exhibit 4. Five Modes of Conflict Resolution


Commitment Points

Major commitment points in the project often cause conflicts. It's human nature to suddenly rethink decisions with major impact, at the last minute. Commitment points typically involve releases to the project: funding, personnel, resources, distribution authority, production authority, etc. Commitment points occur anytime during the project, especially at the end of phases, sometimes called, gates, phase approvals, etc., as shown in Exhibit 3.

Preparation for Commitment Points

Once you have identified the critical commitment points in your project, you must get the agreement of those responsible for the amendment concerning the specific procedures they will follow in making the commitment. These procedures are the actions they will take, not just the criteria they will apply. It is important to be sure that they identify all those participants who will be involved and what information, in what form, they will need to make the commitment. This way, you can avoid last minute surprises, such as extra reviewers, additional paperwork, and unplanned inspections.

Responding to Conflict

Of the five classic methods for conflict resolution, all but one emphasizes give-and-take problems solving based on past experience and on the distribution of power. None of these methods directly affect trust. Only collaboration forges a stronger relationship by using the underlying conflict to improve the groups' performance. To accomplish this, collaboration is a forward-looking method in which participants commit to actions based on future payoffs, rather than as compensation for past wrongs. Trust is rebuilt through shared commitments to action.

Modes of Conflict Resolution

A model for understanding individuals' responses to conflict was developed in the mid-'70s that is still used today for developing an appropriate response to conflict. The five modes are competing, accommodating, compromising, collaborating, and avoiding. Each involves a level of assertiveness (interest in satisfying one's own desires) and an independent level of cooperativeness (interest in satisfying others' desires), as shown in Exhibit 4.

Competing = win/lose (high assertiveness, low cooperativeness)

Competing is used when quick action is required as in an emergency or when unpopular decisions must the made involving some vital issues requiring a clear decision. Aggression by the other party may also require a competitive response. If the conflict is not important enough to spend time on compromise or collaboration, competing (along with accommodating or avoiding) may be more cost-effective. However, competing is often viewed as a noncooperative approach and an undermine to the other parties' trust.

Accommodating = lose/win (low assertiveness, high cooperativeness)

Accommodating is used to show reasonableness, to create good will, and to keep the peace, especially when dealing with a new and unfamiliar area of conflict. Like competing and avoiding, accommodating may be used for conflicts of low importance to save time. However, accommodating is often interpreted as a retreat rather than an overt strategy.

Avoiding = ?/? (low assertiveness, low cooperativeness)

Avoiding is used to allow time for tensions to ease and to buy time for preparing a better strategy. Like competing and accommodating, avoiding may be used for conflicts of low importance to save time, especially for handling bigger issues. However, avoiding is often perceived as arrogance or fear, i.e., either the party doesn't think the conflict is worth their time or trouble, or he or she wants to avoid an inevitable loss. Avoiding conflict resolution does not mean that you always avoid responsibility. In fact, you may end up with excessive responsibility and no authority.

Compromising = lose/lose (medium assertiveness, medium cooperativeness)

Compromising is used when the conflict is important enough to spend the time needed to reach an agreement through negotiation. Unless the parties are evenly matched in power and skill, compromising can revert to competing and accommodating. Most compromised solutions are temporary, unlike collaborative solutions. However, compromising typically requires less time than collaborating.

Collaborating = win/win (high assertiveness, high cooperativeness)

Collaborating is used to resolve important conflicts, especially those affecting relationships between groups. The predominant activities in collaborating are integrating solutions, marching perspectives, gaining commitments, and learning more about the other parties and the conflict itself.

Exhibit 5.


If used inappropriately, any of these modes will eventually cause increased conflict. To be successful, each of these modes require specific skills and attitude, as shown in Exhibit 5.

A study found that staff managers are lower power than line managers and tend to interpret openness as willingness to be persuaded, not an invitation to joint problem solving. They were perceived as being noncooperative. No matter what mode you end up using, be sure to summarize the agreements reached and check with everyone before separating. Another study showed that 80% misunderstood what agreements were reached!

Managing Collaboration

Project managers play a key role in injecting the process of collaboration into their projects. Collaboration is a continuous process, a building and rebuilding of relationships, and requires a continuously engaged facilitator to move it step by step through the project phases; the continuous involvement of the project manager meets this need. The project manager also is responsible for the success of the project for all stakeholders and is most highly motivated to seek a cooperative, rather than adversarial project environment.

The major tasks for collaboration to success are:

• Getting participation from the right representatives for all affected parties

• Establishing a common set of desirable outcomes, intermediate as well as longer term

• Reaffirming the power inherent in working together in good relationships

• Reaffirming the potential benefits of conflicts as catalysts to develop better products and achieve higher performance

• Neutralizing attempts at avoidance, accommodation, or competition

• Focusing on commitments to action and follow through, rather than dwelling on past injuries.

Although project managers are in the best position to facilitate successful collaboration, several barriers often prevent them from succeeding.

• Reticence, especially in the face of conflict, is common for managers who came from an occupation that had low communication requirements, such as the technical fields.

• Affiliation of the project manager with his or her primary group can bias the project manager's approach and alienate other parties.

• Playing a more unbiased role and entertaining others' views can make the project manager appear to betray his or her primary group.

• The threat of being out-maneuvered by better negotiators or by those with higher authority can discourage the project manager.

• A fixation on revenge by any party may outweigh their interest in a continuing relationship.

• The widespread effect of any culture change can put an unwelcome spotlight on the project manager.

To be able to overcome these barriers, the project manager can use any or all of the following aids:

• Training and "practice, practice, practice" in conflict resolution and mediation methods

• Assistance of a trained mediator or facilitator

• Support of a sponsor at a level higher than that of the participants

• A visible set of conflict resolution rules to which all participant agree and comply in every encounter

• A project progress chart of conflicts encountered and their outcomes, to track the groups' improvement.

Getting Help

Many organizations have built internal social systems that respond to conflict by avoiding resolution or by a strong show of force. In more dysfunctional organizations, the social system provokes conflicts, without providing the support needed to resolve them effectively. Project managers in either of these types of organizations fight an up-hill battle to improve relationships between the various project groups. At the project manager level, the most effective strategy is to raise everyone's expectations by applying new conflict resolution techniques gradually, by documenting the methods and the outcomes, and by repeatedly promoting the advantages and explaining the methods to everyone within earshot, especially to executive management.

When the challenge of introducing collaboration into the organization is too great for the project manager, help from outside may be appropriate. There are several ways to facilitate conflict resolution. The most common are:

• Self-Resolution—All the parties are trained in conflict resolution and their process is self-governing.

• Mediation—A qualified intermediary helps the parties through the conflict resolution process.

• Arbitration—An official judge analyzes the conflict and dictates its resolution.

• Hybrid—A combination of the above methods, typically run as a mediated workshop.


The process of mediation can be conducted by the project manager or by an outside mediator. In mediation, unlike arbitration, parties still control the resolution of their own conflicts. Parts of the mediation process are useful in any form of conflict resolution and typically include:

• Agreement on a mission, the ground rules, an achievable goal, the deadlines, and everyone's roles and responsibilities

• Early agreement to something with low controversy.

• Disclosing worst-case scenarios and greatest aspirations and dispelling them

• Allowing disagreement, but requiring alternatives in place of agreement

• Repeating what others state to overcome selective hearing

• Encouraging creativity, especially in understanding the reasons for dispute.


The most common form of arbitration used in projects is the escalation of conflicts to the executive level of the organization. Arbitration in any form can result in resolutions that do not address the root causes of the conflict and are subsequently superficial and short-lived. It can also discourage commitment to the resolution because the parties involved do not feel their needs were adequately addressed.


Project managers are the key players in the continuous transition from conflict to collaboration. By following the steps outlined and by using extra aids where needed, project managers can ensure better working relationships between project stakeholders, not only in the current project, but also in future projects.


Adams, John R., & Kirchof, Nicki S. (1997). Conflict management for project managers. Principles of Project Management, 170–211. Upper Darby, PA: Project Management Institute.

Costantino, Cathy A., & Merchant, Christina S. (1996). Training and education in designing conflict management systems, pp. 134–149. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Russo, J. Edward, & Schoemaker, Paul J.H. (1989). Changing your ways of deciding. Decision Traps: Ten Barriers to Brilliant Decision-Making and How to Overcome Them, 211–223. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Schrage, Michael. (1989). Collaboration in no more teams! Mastering the dynamics of creative collaboration, 26–57. New York: Doubleday.

Thomas, Kenneth W., & Kilmann, Ralph H. (1974). Thomas-Kilmann conflict mode instrument. Tuxedo Park, NY: Xicom, Inc.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston, Texas, USA



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