Leadership through conflict

grow and advance project teams!


Conflict is inevitable in project teams involving more than one person. Project managers and team members must manage conflict effectively for successful project delivery. The ability to manage conflict is considered to be a core leadership competence and can help project teams to grow and advance. However, conflict management is one of the most difficult soft skills that someone can master and develop.

Conflict is the driving force for change. In general, conflict is divided in GOOD and BAD conflict. Good conflict produces new ideas, solves continuous problems, gives opportunity for people to expand skills, allows creativity, and improves performance. Bad conflict lowers team energy or morale, reduces productivity, prevents job accomplishment, creates destructive behavior, and fosters poor performance.

In addition, conflict can be warranted or unwarranted. Warranted conflict arises when team members DON‘T agree with the stated goal. Unwarranted conflict arises when team members agree with the stated goal, but they DISAGREE about how to accomplish the stated goal. Most of the conflicts (80%) are unwarranted conflicts.

Conflict resolution is a six-step process: (1) Define problem, (2) gather data, (3) analyze data, (4) choose best solution, (5) implement solution, and (6) continue to refine the solution. Conflict strategies include AVOIDING (avoid the conflict and postpone the decision), COLLABORATING (try to meet needs of all involved), COMPETING (take a firm stand and use positional power to conform to one perspective), ACCOMMODATING (give in to others), and COMPROMISING (satisfy partially everyone).

Dealing with conflict effectively allows team members to master and develop one of the most difficult soft skills. This will make “leading through conflict” an easy and must have competence!


Our ability to understand, communicate, and influence others depends in large part on having a very good understanding of ourselves—how we prefer to interact and relate with others, our interpersonal strengths, what motivates or de-motivates us, and what actually happens to us when we are under conflict and stress. Understanding strengths, our limitations, and ourselves helps us to be more effective when communicating with others. The most crucial impact of this is to reduce conflict.

In order to understand our team members’ and ourselves better, we must use a standardized inventory. To understand the differences and similarities between people, many different types of inventories can be used like DiSC Profile, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) (http://www.knowyourtype.com), and Strength Deployment Inventory (SDI) (www.personalstrength.com).

Each one of these different types of inventories has its own particular strengths and limitations. One important key point is to differentiate between a motivational model and a behavioral model.

  • The behavioral model focuses on patterns of behavior and characteristic traits that define a specific type of personality—this model is recognizing what someone does based on his or her personality.
  • The motivational model looks behind behavior to understand what are the factors that drive behavior—this model is recognizing why someone is likely to do something based on his motivational value.

Conflict also is part of our lives. Based on research by Thamhain and Wilemon (1975), there are seven major sources of project conflict and team disagreements are (alphabetically):

  1. Administrative policies and procedures,
  2. Manpower resources,
  3. Personalities,
  4. Project costs,
  5. Project Priorities,
  6. Schedules, and
  7. Technical beliefs and performance trade-offs.

What Is the Difference Between GOOD Conflict and BAD Conflict?

But what exactly is conflict? According to the dictionary, “conflict is a clash between hostile or opposing elements or ideas.” If we apply this definition to human behavior, then “conflict is a disagreement between individuals that can vary from mild dissent to an emotion packed win-lose confrontation.”

In simple words, conflict is:

  • Inevitable in any situation involving more than one person;
  • A consequence of interactions and differences in goals, viewpoints, and needs;
  • Good or bad;
  • A result of differences in objectives, values, and perceptions;
  • A simple disagreement or confrontational;
  • A creator of competition;
  • An cause or result of change; or
  • Something that needs to be managed immediately.

Always “conflict is a driving force for change,” and it is separated in good and bad.

GOOD conflict:

  • Produces new ideas,
  • Solves continuous problems,
  • Gives opportunity for people to expand skills,
  • Allows creativity, and
  • Improves performance.

On the opposite side, BAD conflict:

  • Lowers team energy or morale,
  • Reduces productivity,
  • Prevents job accomplishment,
  • Creates destructive behavior, and
  • Fosters poor performance.

“Warranted Conflict” vs “Unwarranted Conflict”

In warranted conflict, team members DO NOT agree with the stated goal. For example:

  • We should have never been involved in this project.
  • This work package is out of scope!
  • There is no need to spend resources to do testing!

In unwarranted conflict, team members agree with the stated goal, but they DISAGREE about how to accomplish the stated goal. For example:

  • I believe that integration should be done before testing and not testing before the integration!
  • I prefer to create the WBS instead of Jim!
  • The quality control department should have helped us!

Research shows that in most cases, 80% of the conflict is unwarranted conflict

Symptoms of Team Conflict and High-Performance Teams

The typical symptoms of team conflict are the following (in alphabetical order):

  1. Absenteeism,
  2. Complaining,
  3. Filing lawsuits,
  4. Finger pointing,
  5. Gossiping ,
  6. Hiding information that should be shared,
  7. Hostility,
  8. Not attending required meetings,
  9. Not completing work on-time or to quality goals,
  10. Not responding to requests for information,
  11. Not returning phone calls or e-mails,
  12. Passive/aggressive behavior,
  13. Physical violence, and
  14. Verbal abuse.

On the contrary, the characteristics of a high-performance team are:

  • Has no prima donnas (a vain or undisciplined person who finds it difficult to work under direction or as part of a team [www.merriam-webster.com])
  • Communicates effectively with each other;
  • Works together to achieve mutual goals;
  • Shares the joy of accomplishment;
  • Shares the pain of not meeting goals;
  • Recognizes that each one is an accountable team player;
  • Has a balance of team members with the skills and abilities to meet mutual goals;
  • Helps each other and shares information;
  • Recognizes that the success of the group is based on the success of each individual;
  • Is able to deal with conflict;
  • Understands roles and responsibilities and respects each other; and
  • It is aligned with the same goals and commitments.

What Causes Team Conflict?

  • Team conflict can be cause by various factors. Some of these factors include:
  • Poor communication or no communication;
  • Lack of problem solving skills or getting to “root cause”;
  • Lack of clarity in purpose, goals, objectives, team & individual roles;
  • Uncertainty/lack of resources and sources for help and support;
  • Poor time management;
  • Lack of leadership and management;
  • Team members bored, not challenged, not really interested;
  • Lack of skills and abilities in team members;
  • Personality conflicts;
  • Personal problems; and
  • High turnover rates .

According to Thamhain and Wilemon (1975), the seven major sources of project conflict and team disagreements are (sorted by significance are): (Exhibit 1)

Seven major sources of project conflict and team disagreements

Exhibit 1 Seven major sources of project conflict and team disagreements

Conflict Resolution Is a Six-Step Process

In order to resolve the conflict, the following six-step process is proposed:

  1. Define the problem—understand what the problem is;
  2. Gather data—collect data to support your problem definition;
  3. Analyze the data—analyze data to produce valuable information;
  4. Choose the best solution—amongst different options, choose the best solution;
  5. Implement the solution—the chosen solution must be implemented; and
  6. Continue to refine the solution.

Conflict Strategies

There are five conflict strategies: avoiding, collaborating, competing, accommodating, and compromising:

  1. Avoiding tries to maintain team harmony and smooth over differences; avoids frustration and aggression; and seeks to evade the conflict entirely.
  2. Competitive approach uses force to make team members conform to one perspective. Take a firm stand and know what they want. Strategy is useful when a decision needs to be made fast.
  3. Collaboration places an emphasis on mutual goals, joint benefit, and inclusion of several views and opinions for a team solution. Try to meet needs of all involved. Cooperate effectively and acknowledge everyone is important. Strategy is useful when there have been previous conflicts in the group or the situation is too important for a simple trade-off.
  4. Accommodator conveys that the other party is accepted as effective and avoids blaming or trading insults. Not assertive, but highly cooperative. Accommodation is appropriate when the issues matter more to the other party. However, people are unlikely to return the position and accommodate later, so this approach usually does not give the best solution.
  5. Compromising tries to resolve the conflict with a solution that will partially satisfy everyone. This approach is useful when the cost of conflict is higher than the cost of losing ground, when strong opponents are at a standstill and a deadline is approaching.

Types of Conflict Resolutions

Whatever conflict we have, there are only three types of conflict resolutions:

Win-Win: To reach a solution acceptable to anyone
Lose-Lose: Everyone gets something that does not accomplish the goals
Win-Lose: Power struggle where one party wins

Comparing the conflict strategies from the one side and the conflict resolutions from the other side, we have the following two-dimensions table:

Conflict strategies and solutions

Exhibit 2 Conflict strategies and solutions

Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument

The Thomas-Kilmann conflict mode instrument was developed by K. W. Thomas and R. H. Kilmann (1974, 2000). This instrument compares the assertiveness of the conflict strategy against the cooperativeness. According to Thomas-Kilmann conflict mode instrument:

  • Competing is a win-lose resolution technique.
  • Collaborating is a win-win resolution technique.
  • Compromising is a lose-lose resolution technique.
  • Avoiding is a lose-lose resolution technique.
  • Accommodating is a lose-win resolution technique.

Discovering the Preferred Communication Style of Team Members

Strength deployment inventory (SDI) was developed by Dr. Elias Porter in 1971 and is based on relational awareness theory (RAT). RAT is based on the premise that one’s behavior traits are consistent with what one finds gratifying in interpersonal relations and with concepts or beliefs one holds about how to interact with others to achieve those gratifications.

According to SDI, each one of us is a mixture of the following three motivational values:

  1. The desire to be logical (self-reliant),
  2. The desire to be in action, and
  3. The desire to nurture.

Therefore, we can be grouped based on which of these values we use to build up our senses and self-worth. In addition, we have two sets of perceptual circuitry that are measured by SDI:

  1. One when things are going well (our comfort zone), and
  2. One when things are not going well – mainly when we are under stress or in conflict (our stress zone).

Dr. Elias Porter (1971) stated: “The more personality theory can be for a person rather about a person, the better it will serve the person” (2007, sidebar). So, some of the advantages of SDI include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Recognizes differences in relating styles;
  • Deals with differences in our behavior when things are going well vs. when we are under stress/conflict;
  • Addresses the underlying motivations for different relating styles;
  • Deals with what motivates and what demotivates us;
  • Gives a better understanding of what is going on when we are in conflict; and
  • Offers a simple framework for understanding and recognizing the motivational value system (MVS) of other people.

The Seven Different Motivational Value Systems

Using SDI, we can measures the MVS of a person when things are going well and their conflict sequence when the person is in conflict or stress. This is very useful tool for project managers to use it to understand their own style and preferences—then to recognize situations where borrowing another style would generate a better outcome. In addition, it can be used to understand the style and preference of their stakeholders.

The SDI is outcome oriented; it is telling us the reason behind a specific behavior. Therefore, it is easier to act on this learning and apply it easily to interpersonal behavior choices (http://www.personalstrengths.com/).

As it was mentioned before, according to SDI, each one of us is a mixture of three motivational values:

  1. The desire to nurture (Blue = Its main concern is the protection and growth of others);
  2. The desire to be logical / self reliant (Green = Its main concern is for making sure that things are properly thought out); and
  3. The desire to be in action (Red = Its main concern is for task accomplishment and achieving desired results.

In addition, there are other four MVSs that are a mixture of the main three MVS colors: HUBs, Red-Blue, Red-Green, and Blue-Green.

Discovering the Communication Value System (Red, Blue or Green MVS)

So, how can we use the chief characteristics of each MVS? How can team members and stakeholders easily be categorized? How do we communicate better with team members and stakeholders in order to reduce conflict and built trust?

Using the chief characteristics of each MVS, we can categorize our stakeholders by their MVS. In addition, the SDI premier edition booklet can be used to discover someone’s MVS. Therefore, by knowing someone’s MVS, we can address the message to him or her as he or she would expect the message.

Leadership Styles of Different MVS

Each MVS style has a distinct leadership style. These leadership styles are:

  • Blue: Leadership by enablement and support;
  • Red: Leadership by direction and example;
  • Green: Leadership by procedure and exception; and
  • HUB: Leadership by consensus and teamwork.

Using these leadership styles, we can reduce conflict and improve cooperation between team members.

Different Communication Styles to Improve Communication and Reduce Conflict

As far as we discover our stakeholder MVS, then we know how to communicate better with him or her. It is useful to know what they like and what they dislike: (Exhibit 3)

MVS Color communication table

Exhibit 3 MVS Color communication table


Project managers spend 90% of their time communicating with stakeholders. Reducing conflict will greatly improve team performance. Discovering the MVS style of our stakeholder can greatly increase the communication because we hear messages transmitted by others in our own way, which is interpreted by our own motivational value system.

Communicating with others and talking to them using their own needs—empathetic listening—allows us to build trust quickly and co-operate better. It allows the project manager to build a positive climate among the stakeholders, motivate the team members to perform better, and reduce conflicts.


Porter, E, (2007) Retrieved from http://us.personalstrengths.com/sdi.php?id=148

Thamhain, H., & Wilemon, D. (1975). Conflict management in project life cycle. Sloan Management Review, Spring, 31–50.

Thomas, K., & Kilmann, R. (1974). MODE instrument. Mountain View, CA: Xicom and CPP, Inc. Available from http://www.kilmann.com/conflict.html

© 2009, Theofanis Giotis MSc, PMP® & José Ângelo Pinto MSc, PMP®
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI North America Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA



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