Conflicts in the project environment

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David Guan,PMP
Senior Project Manager, Huawei Technologies


Conflicts occur daily in our lives. Some can vary from a minor disagreement between individuals or groups to a major extreme situation with life-threatening elements. Being a project manager or team leader these conflicts are especially rampant and relevant in the project environment. This paper looks at the causes of conflicts ranging from team-setup, cultural differences, project priorities and personal issues that engulf the project in meeting the project objectives.

The latter part of the paper discusses on some common methods of conflict resolutions where emphasis is placed on winning parties involved in post-conflict dialogues.


What is conflict? Well, the Oxford dictionary defines it as:

  • Fighting, quarrel, struggle, disagreement, difference of opinion
  • Conflict is generally defined as ‘a clash between hostile or opposing elements or ideas’
  • Can vary from a mild disagreement to emotion-packed confrontations

All of us have, at one time or another, been involved in conflicts based on the above. These conflicts may involve not only individuals, but families, groups, or even nations as we have seen in the outbreak of major conflicts and evident in the last two world wars where millions lost their lives. This is considered the worst outcome of a conflict involving human lives. As we can see, if conflicts are not managed or dealt with, they could escalate out of control causing a great deal of unexpected damage.

Let us not go far, take our homes as an example. Very often, we hear of conflicts between spouses, children, or even the whole family. Evidenced by the fact that as long as there are humans, there are bound to be conflicts, conflicts are inevitable! Even more, if we redirect this to the project environment, where there are different individuals, groups, and sometimes people from diverse cultural backgrounds the potential for conflict exists.

Since conflicts are unavoidable, how do you view conflicts?

From the Traditional view points, the following are noted:

  • Conflicts are considered as bad
  • Conflicts are caused by trouble makers
  • Conflicts should be avoided

And from the Contemporary view points, the following are noted:

  • Conflicts are inevitable
  • Conflicts are often beneficial
  • Conflicts should be managed

History has shown us that no matter what types of conflicts have occurred, the key message for all involved is that these conflicts MUST BE MANAGED!

Having understood what conflicts are and the views of conflicts, let us now move our focus to the project environment as the key message for our understanding in this paper.

In the project environment, conflicts are as rampant or even more tense than any other environment. Project activities are executed by human resources in order to achieve stakeholder expectations and meeting project objectives. The following poetic narration would certainly indicate why conflicts should occur in the project environment.

When there are humans, there are conflicts

In a war there are different groups

These groups hate one another

In a project there are different individuals

These individuals disagree with each other

If a project is like a war

Why should there be no conflicts?

Managing human resources will always lead to disagreements, quarrels, fights, and even a breakup of the project team if not managed properly. Therefore, in the project environment conflicts are:

  • Inevitable
  • Can build the team
  • Can destroy the team
  • Must be managed

Causes of Conflicts


It's very easy to spark or arouse a disagreement provoking individuals, groups, or even nations to a conflict situation. The art or actions taken to remedy or calm such occurrences is a technique by itself. The following are common sources of conflicts, especially in the project environment.

  • Schedules
  • Prior unresolved conflicts
  • Project priorities
  • Resource competition
  • Cultural differences
  • Technical issues
  • Team or clique
  • Personality conflicts
  • Organization structure
  • Communication barriers
  • Poor planning

There are, of course, many other sources of conflicts that exist in the project environment. And in this paper, we would only focus of four areas, namely:

  1. Team environment
  2. Cultural differences
  3. Project priorities
  4. Personality

Most of us are familiar with how a project environment is and it will be more relevant if you are a project manager or team leader responsible for a sizeable project involving many resources, compounded if with different nationalities, made worse if struggling with unrealistic datelines. Under such circumstances, the elements present in the above project environment would tend to drive the whole project team to a stage closer and closer to priorities, schedules, and even resource competitions leading to project conflicts.

Hence in the project scenario, the following elements or “Pressure Cooker” points are some key contributing factors to project conflicts:

  • High stress environment
  • Ambiguous roles/responsibilities
  • Multiple boss situation
  • Advance technology complexities
  • Unrealistic datelines
  • Lack of resources
  • Insufficient funding
  • Inept leadership

Group discussion

  • Think of a recent conflict in your job whether internal or external such as vendors and suppliers, etc being involved.
  • Describe how this conflict occurred and its impact
  • Steps taken to resolve it

What must you do as a Project Manager or Team leader to deal with conflicts in your team?

It's useful for project managers and team leaders to understand human behaviour and some aspect of psychology so they can deal with members of the project team more effectively if counselling is involved. At any point in time such conflicts do occur, the project manager or team leader has to take appropriate actions to manage these conflicts to avoid destructive consequences. As a leader of the project team, and being the SPOC (single point of contact) this position renders the automatic authority to the project manager and team leader in order to facilitate conflict resolutions. On the other hand project management is also synonymous to Conflict Management due to the highly conflictive situation.

Conflicts arisen from the Team environment

Projects are executed by people. And people or human resources make up the team. Most projects utilize the matrix structure to execute projects. And due to this structure, which creates the multiple boss reporting situation, conflicts are generated automatically. In addition, project team members are assembled from diverse backgrounds, and, if in a large project, may not know each other well enough to be settled down yet, but already striving to work towards meeting the tight deadlines.

It will spell disaster if the project manager or team leader does not conduct a proper kick-off meeting or allow sufficient time for the project team members to know each other and understand their commitments. In order to minimize conflicts in this type of situation the project managers or team leaders should constantly motivate and develop the project team to lead them into accomplishing the objectives of the project.


What are some of the major barriers in a project team? The following points are noted:

  • Different priorities, interest and judgement of team members
  • Role conflicts
  • Lack of commitment
  • Communication problems
  • Geographic scatter of team members

When the project progresses into the different stages of the project life cycle, i.e. from initiation, to planning, execution, and closing, it is amazing that you will find different patterns or behaviour from the project team members. Some are committed and show enthusiasm in their roles whilst others may shown signs of frustration and start to display symptoms of bad team work. Some of these symptoms are as follows:

  • Lack of trust or confidence in the project manager
  • Lack of synergy
  • Unhealthy competitions
  • Unproductive meetings

As a project manager it's critical to constantly build the team to motivate them to achieve project goals. The Tuckman principle can be helpful to understand the Team development process and is shown as follows (Tuckman & Jensen, 1997): (Exhibit 1)

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 1

Conflicts arisen from Cultural differences

With the advent of technology and communications, the world is slowly evolving into a global village. And as such projects are executed across borders involving many nations and cultures. It is because of this that managing projects globally can pose many challenges as well as excitement.

Why are there conflicts because of cultural differences?

First and foremost we have to know what culture is. Culture by definition is defined as the way we do things or the habits reflected in ourselves within our community, group or country. If we are in a country other than our own, some of the common cultural conflicts are as follows:

  • Language
    • The way we speak - volume and tone
    • Always consider others when you communicate in a group with a different language
  • Food
    • Eating of foods which may be sensitive to others
    • Eating loudly or with a loud burp
  • Festivals or celebrations
    • Religious celebrations
  • Dressing
    • Different ethnic groups dress differently

Any one who is involved in any cross cultural/country projects is advised to know some of the important dos and don'ts before even arriving in that country. This is to avoid any conflicts or unwanted embarrassments. Some of the offences or problems that we create are due to our ignorance. Sometimes these cultural differences may seem small, but if not managed properly can escalate out of control. Always be proactive to find out what are the important cultural offences that may hinder tasks execution or effective communications amongst different cultural groups. It is always recommended to be part of the group that we are involved in the project in order to foster closer ties and bonding. Follow the saying which says “When in Rome do as the Romans do.” Always be adaptable and try to learn some simple sentences such as ‘Good morning, thank you,‘ etc in the local language. Or if you are invited to a meal to their homes, if they eat with their hands, be a part of them, eat with your hands or, if they use chopsticks, then try to use chopsticks to show our friendliness and common bond. Being a project leader or project manager leads your team to practise these simple things and evidently conflicts arising from cultural issues shall be greatly minimized!

Common cultural awareness key points


  • No disturbance during prayer times
  • No pork, dog, or donkey. Do not talk about these foods at dining table
  • Do not offer gifts to customers without valid reasons
  • Do not offer medicines to customers
  • Proper dressing for official meetings


  • No kissing when meeting the first time
  • Do not talk about politics when in China
  • Hand phones should be on 24 hours
  • Must not send clock as a gift
  • 4 is not a lucky number, be careful when to use it


  • Forbidden to use left hand to exchange things
  • Do not enter a Muslim man's house in Northern Nigeria without permission
  • Do not drink liquid unfinished from another person
  • VERY SERIOUS OFFENCE- do not kiss people's girl friend or wife
  • High respect for festivals
  • African time is uncertain for meetings. Plan for it.

Conflicts arisen from Project priorities

Stakeholder Expectations

One of the key tasks of a project manager is to be able to manage stakeholder expectations. Stakeholders are defined as any individuals or groups or organizations whose interest on the project may be positively or negatively impacted as a result of the outcome of the project execution. As we all know different stakeholders have different expectations, and they are hard to be managed because they tend to wander from time to time as a result of project execution.

Customer Satisfaction

The customer is always right!’ As a project manager we are often caught in this dilemma. Are the customers always right even if they are wrong? As a good project manager, always remember that our company exists because of the customers. And even if we are driven to the dead end by the customers, our professionalism and integrity should NOT betray us. Our ultimate goal is to achieve customer satisfaction, though this is very subjective in nature. Always be cautious not to fall into the trap of “GOLD PLATING” under any circumstances. The win-win or winning strategy is to be considered to emphasize our partnership and dedication.

Schedule and Resource competition

Very often projects are given an imposed dateline by the customer. Under such a scenario the project manager has no choice but to complete the project with every possible constraint and pressure in order to meet the project schedule. Such a project breeds the most conflicts as compared to a project where the project team arrives at a realistic completion date based on project team's planning efforts.

Things can go awry if similar resources are working on more than one project and this could lead to resource competition and ultimately erupt into severe conflicts.

In any case, a good project manager must be aware of the triple constraints of managing projects. Defining and refining the project on an ongoing basis. It is the constant communication internally to the organization's management/project team and externally to the client's expectations that can make or break a project under tense situations. It is therefore the project manager combining the art and science of project management that makes the difference.

Conflicts arisen from individual personalities

Personalities of the project team can be a driving factor to determine if the project can succeed or not. Different personalities may cause varying expectations from the other party which can lead to disagreements and conflicts. Sometimes each individual has certain strong personalities and if not managed properly can lead to clashes and team morale. And as the saying goes AS FAR AS THE EAST IS FROM THE WEST SO IS EACH PERSON DIFFERENT FROM EACH OTHER.

Some team members tend to centre on interpersonal differences rather than ‘Technical issues’ and this is really a “thorn in the flesh” to the project manager. This poses a great challenge to the project manager or team leader to deal with such individuals so that the Forming stage can be obtained before moving on to the Performing stage as outlined by Tuckman.

A project manager must exercise his or her authority over the immediate team members in the beginning of the project so that a coercive team is developed to efficiently execute the deliverables of the project.

And if such personality issues are not dealt with in the beginning of the project, when we move to the execution phase, there will be such huge amount of things that need to be done so much so that the team morale will tend to dwindle due to unproductive performance because of personality issues. And always remember that the success of a project is very much dependent on the behaviour of the people in your project team.

A project manager has to be tactful when dealing with personality issues, a wrong move or action could spark off into emotional charged conflicts leading to possible team break ups. There are many types of conflict resolution methods. They are as follows:

Conflict Resolutions

Resolution Type Common result
•  Forcing win-lose
•  Smoothing yield-lose
•  Withdrawing lose-leave
•  Compromising moderate lose-moderate lose
•  Problem solving or confrontation integrative

Out of all the above methods, the most recommended is problem solving or confrontation which leads to a win-win solution for both parties.

As we can see conflicts are part and parcel of managing projects whether big or small, simple or complex. And conflict management is critical to the project manager and if uncontrolled can tear the project apart. Be the project Manager NOT the project Damager!


Needless to say, conflicts are everywhere, though we may not be able to prevent them from happening, we certainly can control and minimize them. One of the primary methods of reducing conflicts is to perform careful project planning. Once the project plan, contributed by major key stakeholders, is established, it's only the implementation that a project manager will carry out based on the project plan so that every team member will commit themselves according to the plan, in this way, minimum deviations can be avoided and less fire fighting is involved.

In most of the projects that have been executed, the planning of the project was not done with much attention and sufficient time, so much so that when the project moves into the implementation stage, major issues begin to surface or scope creep was great demanding severe changes to the contract. And it is during these tense moments that many conflicts ranging from schedules delays, scope changes, resource competitions, and technical issues start to overwhelm the project manager and even the project team members.

Therefore it is also advisable to heed the wise saying such as

Success of plans depends on contributions of core team members and…

Plans fail for lack of counsel!

But with many advisers they succeed!

And No one plans to fail but many people fail to plan!

And in summary, the project manager is also a conflict manager due human to resources involved in executing project activities.

The project manager by nature of position has authority that can bring the conflicting parties together to resolve the conflicts. And sometimes some cases can be resolved by personally making decisions there and then. Consequently, the project manager can use the knowledge and managerial skills to influence some conflict cases. It is only by understanding sources of conflict and applying available power to deal with it that these undesirable situations can turn around.

And finally we can learn from one of the great ancient war heroes from China called Sun Tzu. And from his principle we can deduce that:

  • Know your enemy know yourself, 100 wars 100 wins
  • Know your customer know your stakeholders, every project every success!

This is especially relevant in the project environment.


Tuckman, B. W., & Jensen, M. C. (1977, December). Stages of Small-Group Development Revisited. Group & Organization Studies, 2 (4), 419-427

© 2007, David Guan,PMP
Originally published as a part of 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Hong Kong