Conflict management strategies for project managers

Woodrow H. Sears, Ed.D.

Management Consultant Bodega

Bay, CA.

Conflict—and being in conflict—are normal and natural parts of the human condition. Being effective in an organizational or social role does not suggest an absence of conflict, but rather mastering strategies which permit conflict to be managed so the goal-directed energy flow of the participants is not restrained.

Any organization can be characterized as an energy exchange system; but a project organization, as an alternative organization within a larger corporate structure, is designed to maximize the energy-exchange efficiency of the participating functional departments and their personnel. Consequendy, insuring that conflict issues do not short-circuit the energy exchange process becomes a highly significant management activity.

Four conflict-managing strategies will be recommended in this article. They were selected because they appear to be consistent with the main thrust of organizational theory, they can be used readily and inexpensively, and they require a minimum of personal preparation on the manager’s part.

It should be noted that the four strategies presented are oriented toward interpersonal and personal conflicts within the project team. This should not preclude the strategies’ utility in resolving technical, procedural, and scheduling conflicts, but again, the emphasis here is on “people problems.”

STRATEGY #1: Be Clear About Goal and Objectives

With its emphasis on measurement and control tools such as PERT, CPM, and Analysis Bar Charting, the project organization is possibly the most goal-oriented group within any corporate structure. Further, visual display control devices such as the Plan-a-Log board, which highlight milestones and work group accountability, make the project the ultimate MBO environment. According to one piece of research, these conditions make it possible for the project to be an interpersonally-clean environment. Carroll and Tosi found that

As goals increased in perceived clarity, importance, and relevance, subordinate managers

  1. were more positive toward the MBO program;
  2. reported that they had improved their relations with their boss over previous periods.

Further, they found that the more difficult the goals, the more positively subordinates regarded both the program and their bosses, suggesting that when organizations and managers are seriously involved with goal attainment, petty bickering and differences diminish.

Of equal importance, though, is the fact that goal and role become more clearly related as emphasis on goals and objectives is increased. Membership on a project team is predicated on having the requisite abilities, skills and knowledge to perform a piece of the project work. Thus it is possible to perceive a type of professional parity, minimizing a priori the need for any kind of competition for personal or professional privacy.

This is not to suggest that competition, per se, is inappropriate. But the project manager might want to be sensitive to a reality described by Charles M. Judd:

. . . there are two main processes which underlie conflict resolution. On the one hand, conflict may be resolved cooperatively, with usual productive consequences, while on the other hand, a competitive resolution process usually results in destructive consequences.

A major source of conflict in any enterprise results when roles overlap to the point that individuals find that not only their jobs but their professional prerogatives are being preempted by someone else. In those instances, individuals tend to fight to clarify their roles or to move from frustration toward disinterest and disengagement as a defense. If the project manager can be clear about the requirements of that role, then it should be possible to assist other team members to get clear about their respective roles and to negotiate differences of opinion before those differences become conflicts.

Given the time-phased nature of projects, it is possible for the project manager to negotiate for a cessation of on-going arguments among project team members in deference to the goal or some imminent objective. The negotiations might begin in this manner: “I can appreciate the fact that you guys have a legitimate grievance, but as a project manager, I don’t have the decision-making authority which your problem requires. If you could just hang in there for a couple of weeks until we meet that next milestone, I’ll ask for an appointment with your functional manager and the four of us can sit down and work something out.”

Finally, Peter Drucker says, “A team needs a clear and sharply defined objective. It must be possible all the time to feed back from the objectives to the work and performance of the whole team and of each other member.’' When that situation exists, there will be a data basis for all conversations about the project and individual performance on the project. Current, accurate data tends to dissipate defensiveness. Further, it allows the project manager to stay in a problem-solving mode.

STRATEGY #2: Stay in a Problem-Solving Mode

In their exciting book, The Universal Traveler, Koberg and Bagnall state that Solving problems is a universal occupation. Small or large, personal or social, we are all busy at one problem situation or another. . . .Although problems surround us in many apparently different forms, it is only their specific situations which differ. The process for resolving them remains the same . . . they must all be understood and the understanding must be turned into action (analysis-synthesis).

When something isn’t working, there’s a problem to be solved. When a person is having trouble with deadlines, there’s a problem to be solved. When disagreement (conflict) is blocking productivity, there’s a problem to be solved. Con-sequendy, any manager is a problem-solver. A project manager, being free of organizational ownership of the team members and the host of responsibilities which are common to other managers, may find that problem solving is the major responsibility within the role.

The project manager who is interested in managing and minimizing disruptive conflicts will be mindful not to become part of the problem. That sounds like a tired bromide, but consider: Why is one selected to be a project manager? Is it not likely that project managers, as a group, could be identified as action people, do-ers, problem solvers, creative, capable of initiative? But project managers, like the rest of humankind, will tend to be creatures of habit and will predictably repeat earlier, pay-off behaviors.

“When problem situations arise Don’t do the natural thing and ask, ‘What can I do about it?’... Instead ask, . . . ‘What is the true problem in this situation?’” According to Koberg and Bagnall, the first question will lead to action without definition, and the second question will lead to conscious analysis. That second question also prevents jumping to conclusions, misreading initial data, and committing to a course of action which will prove expensive, embarrassing, or both.

Asking, “What is the true problem in this situation?” keeps the project manager in a problem-solving mode and out of the expert mode. Certainly, the project manager will possess expertise of several kinds and at several levels, but who learns from an expert? Who likes an expert?

Furthermore, in multidisciplinary projects crossing many organizational lines and in which political considerations are often as important as technical decision, things are rarely what they seem to be at first glance. As a guideline for minimizing conflict, it would be hard to improve upon, “Don’t solve the wrong problem!"

STRATEGY #3: Allow Genuine Participation

After years of ponderous commentary on the need to allow people to participate in making decisions which affect them, it is pleasant to come across the pragmatic and almost gleeful advice offered by Harold J. Leavitt:

. . . when we don’t know exacdy what we’re doing, it’s a good idea to loosen things up and let other people in on the act. Imaginative people working in an open environment Eire still a good tool for solving dirty problems.

If the task is large and messy, it makes sense to spread the leadership functions around, to get everybody in on the act. It makes even more sense to do this if the members themselves will have to implement the decisions taken in the group.

In the context of Leavitt’s remarks, participation is no big thing. It is a simple extension of courtesy to co-workers. But for managers who are hooked into authoritarian models, whose inclinations suggest an officer vs. enlisted orientation, who are order-givers, Leavitt’s very human and humane approach will be difficult.

When a hierarchical, boss-subordinate relationships exists, many things will not be discussed with the boss. Conflicts develop in that milieu which then spread to other members of the team. But in a more open environment, in which the project manager is just another colleague trying to get some work accomplished, issues which might have become conflicts become instead grist for the conversational, problem-solving mill.

STRATEGY #4: Confront Problems, Not People

For a host of reasons, many people become defensive anytime they are confronted about their work, their time and attendance, their appearance. Generally speaking, people responding defensively do so because they perceive themselves to be under attack. But so many people respond that way that many managers have learned to avoid or postpone any encounters, hoping the problem will go away.

Fifteen years ago, in a lecture prepared for the Friends General Conference, Gordon Lippitt proposed a profoundly simple communicative and problem-solving model:


Dr. Lippitt’s thesis was a simple one: you can’t talk about something you can’t talk about; you can’t talk to people you can’t approach. Consequendy, when there is a problem, there has to be a confrontation, an acceptance of the fact that there is a problem. Until that occurs, there is no possibility of dialogue, no opportunity for two or more responsible adults to engage in problem-solving behavior, to search for a workable solution.

The third step is crucial. In this less than perfect world, few of our decisions are perfect. And in forced or obligatory relationships, it is necessary to provide for coping with our less-than-perfect solutions. Dr. Lippitt put it in more elegant terms: We must ensure the “preservation of the autonomy of each party.”

This model was described above as “profoundly simple.” Try it for a day and discover how much energy and discipline it requires!

The first thing Dr. Lippitt’s model requires is the toughest: self-understanding. In the context of the project manager’s role, that terminology might be interpreted to be concerned not only with one’s own personal and professional biases, but with the requirements of the specific project management role. For example, anxiety about a problem affecting the project may cause the project manager to violate a basic tenet of effective communications—don’t pre-judge.

Any time a person hears judgment in a question or comment, that person is going to become defensive. Note the difference in these two statements:

“You’re limping, Harry. What happened?” (No judgment; response to an observation.)

“Hey, Harry, what’d you do to your foot?” (Judgment—Harry did something dumb.)

Putting Harry through more paces, try these:

“I really need for that shipment to go out on the fifteenth, Harry. Is there anything I can do to help you to make sure it goes on time?” (I am responding to my anxiety about the shipment date. I expect Harry to ask for my help if he needs it.)

“I don’t think you’re going to get that shipment out on time, Harry. What do I have to do to make sure it goes on the fifteenth?”

(Harry, and his performance, have been judged deficient. Harry will become defensive.)

Once more:

“The guard mentioned you were working quite late last night, Harriet. Is there a problem I can help with?”

(Responding to data; no judgment.)

“What’s the matter, Harriet. The guard said you were in here ‘til midnight. You need some kind of help?” (At best,

Harriet’s efforts are being demeaned. She will become defensive.)

All six of the episodes above are confrontations. Three of them are guarenteed to result in defensiveness.

Defensive team members represent one of the most pernicious types of conflict. Tension and mistrust surround all transactions, and at some point, contempt for the project and the project manager result.


The four conflict management strategies offered here put the load squarely on the project manager. These strategies each require that the project manager be continuously aware of what is going on and how he or she is being perceived in filling the project manager role.

In the introductory paragraphs, the rationale for the choice of these four strategies was given, and one of them was that “they require a minimum of personal preparation on the manager’s part. That is probably an accurate statement—once the project manager is prepared to consciously and conscientiously avoid doing things, saying things, behaving in ways which create conflict, defensiveness, resentment. When a project manager is really trying to do business on those bases, most people will do more than the minimum required to insure the success of the manager and the project.


Carroll, Stephen J. and Henry L. Tosi (1973) Management by Objectives: Applications and Research. New York: Wiley.

Drucker, Peter (1974) Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. New York: Harper and Row.

Judd, Charles M. (1978) “Cognitive effects of attitude conflict resolution,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 22 (3).

Koberg, Don and Jim Bagnall (1976) The Universal Traveler—A Soft-Systems Guide to: Creativity, Problem-Solving and the Process of Reaching Goals.
Los Altos, Ca.: William Kaufman.

Leavitt, Harold J. (1973) Managerial Psychology. Chicago, 111.: University of Chicago.

Lippitt, Gordon L. (1966) Quest for Dialogue. Philadelphia, Pa.: Religious Education Committee, Friends General Conference.



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