Understanding and managing conflict in a project environment

Dr. Vittal Anantatmula PMP, CCE, Associate Professor, Western Carolina University


Projects require people who often do not know each other to come together and work together under the pressure of demanding project constraints. As a result, conflict becomes unavoidable largely because team members come from diverse disciplines and have different expectations, goals, values, perceptions, personalities, and knowledge base. Using past research on conflict, this paper explores the effects of conflict in project teams and presents specific conflict resolution strategies for different types and sources of conflict to foster creativity, productivity, and effective communication. This study is aimed to serve as a foundation for future studies to validate the proposed conflict management models.

Keywords: project teams, source of conflict, type of conflict, conflict resolution strategies, project management


Driven by the need to integrate multiple disciplines and diverse skills to meet project objectives successfully, projects are executed in teams (Anantatmula, 2008). Often, project teams consist of people who may not have worked together before. Additionally, people assigned to a project join the team with varying expectations, goals, values, and knowledge. The theories about conflict have changed over the years. Conflict evolved from always being detrimental to being beneficial to an organization; however, most would agree that uncontrolled conflict has the potential to tear a project apart. Therefore, the project manager also becomes a conflict manager, whose responsibilities include the ability to identify and understand the positive and negative values of conflict and manage its impact on team performance and project success.

Past research focused little on providing an exhaustive analysis of the numerous effects of conflict on individuals; consequently, the objective of this paper is to examine how conflict affects people within the context of project management. This paper also proposes conflict resolution strategies, which are intended to help the project manager handle conflict by minimizing its detrimental outcomes and maximizing its benefits.

After defining and discussing the various views of conflict that evolved over time, we will provide a review of literature, case studies, and research to demonstrate how conflict can lead to low morale, low productivity, low team performance, and increased stress, while some type and level of conflict, if managed constructively, can foster creativity and innovation and enhance communication. Finally, we will include our analysis with various conflict resolution approaches based on the type and source of conflict.

Literature Review

Conflict: From Dysfunctional to Necessary

Conflict is the result of a difference of perception, opinion, or beliefs among people. Usually, conflict occurs when there are incompatible goals, thoughts, or emotions between individuals that result in opposition and disagreements.

Over the years, three different views have developed about conflict in projects and organizations.1Managers, who adopt the traditional view towards conflict, feel that conflict is negative and must be avoided. The manager's responsibility is to create a culture that fosters harmony. The behavioral view still considers conflict as mainly negative, but it also believes that it is natural and inevitable. Managers are encouraged to manage conflict instead of eliminating it. This view also accepts the fact that conflict can yield positive results if managed properly. Finally, the interactionist view believes that conflict should be encouraged up to a certain level because it is necessary to increase performance. Low levels of conflict can lead to less innovation, less change and less improvements for the organization.

Conflict drives a company and its employees to search for answers to problems they are facing, leading to improvements, and it creates energy when handled in a constructive manner (Verma, 1996).

Conflict: A Danger to Be Avoided

Thamhain (2004) believed that conflict is disruptive and the project manager's main goal should be to focus on problem avoidance. Potential conflict should be recognized at its early stages and dealt with before it gets out of control at which stage it consumes a lot of time and resources. Conflicts can consume a manager's time; therefore, the project manager can benefit from creating an environment conducive to group harmony and agreement. Managers must foster an atmosphere that encourages the use of a cooperative style for organizational conflict management (Ohlendorf, 2001). However, to understand the various effects of conflict on people better, it is important to further analyze the concept of conflict, and identify and understand its numerous sources.

People-Focused versus Task-Focused Conflict

Since the project environment depends on the collaboration of many people, it seems that a personality clash is unavoidable. People, rather than procedures, play an important role in the creation of dysfunctional conflict (Gardiner & Simmons, 1998). Personal differences occur when people from different cultures work together towards common project goals. People-focused conflict can have devastating and long-lasting effects on interpersonal relationships. This type of conflict is intense, personal, emotional, subjective, difficult to resolve, and generally detrimental to team performance and project success (Cameron & Whetten, 2007). Verma (1996) labeled this type of conflict category as interpersonal conflict and defined it as the variations in people's work ethics, styles, egos, and personalities.

Relationship conflict hurts team effectiveness, but task conflict, up to a certain level, can sometimes be beneficial. When conflict is absent, teams might not realize that inefficiencies exist; therefore, better decisions are made when opinions are challenged, specifically, when working on non-routine activities complex tasks, which require additional consideration, scrutiny and deliberation. By contrast, relationship conflict generally decreases satisfaction and interferes with task performance.

Although people-focused type of conflict is likely to cause turn over, absenteeism, and organizational behavior, research has shown that team performance can equally be disrupted by both task and relationship conflicts (De Dreu & Weingart, 2003). Performance and conflict are interrelated: “Poor performance leads to conflict and conflict influences performance” (De Dreu & Weingart, 2003, p. 747). Task conflict will only have a positive impact in an environment characterized by high levels of trust, openness, and psychological safety. It seems that collaboration rather than contention is more likely to minimize, if not reverse, the negative effects of task conflict on performance. Conflict associated with tasks can be beneficial and project managers should find a level of conflict that encourages creativity and innovation (Ohlendorf, 2001). Issue-focused conflict is much more beneficial because it takes on a more rational approach to conflict. It can be more easily resolved through negotiations, where both parties agree to find a fair and satisfying resolution (Cameron & Whetten, 2007).

Interface Conflict

Conflict involving the project team and groups that are outside of the project can also be detrimental to project success. Project managers, who are involved in large-scale projects that significantly influence the community, often experience interface conflicts that stem from incompatible requirements from different social groups. Each group will generally present differences in attitude towards a project, and these differences in attitude will generate interface conflict (Awakul & Ogunlana, 2002).

Conflict Within Global Projects

Furthermore, projects that are executed across borders bring additional challenges to project management. Damian and Zowghi (2002) suggested that the issues that are unique to global projects include poor communication, knowledge management, cultural diversity, and time differences, and all of them can contribute to conflicts. Therefore, global projects are burdened by misunderstandings, confusion, and friction among project participants, and severe communication and coordination difficulties. Mahalingham and Levitt (2007) suggested that conflict, delays, and cost overruns mainly occur because of institutional differences, which are the differences in workplace norms, legal regulations, and cultural values. By understanding these differences through training, experience, and effective communication, project managers can more accurately classify the cross-national issues they encounter, determine the causes behind the various conflicts, and judge the relative ease with which each type of conflict can be resolved. To further this analysis, it is important to examine the existence and causes of conflict with the project itself and its environment.

The Correlation Between Conflict and Project Closeout

Conflict can reach a high level when projects end and team members return to their respective functions, departments, or are reassigned to new projects. The dismantling of a team that created a certain degree of cohesiveness over the lifetime of a project can create high levels of stress, anxiety, frustration, and conflict (Theodore, 1971).

Conflict Associated With Poor Role Definition, Goals and Priorities

Role ambiguity can be defined as a lack of clarity about a person's expected behavior from his or her position. In his research, Bauer (2002) analyzed the causal relationship between role ambiguity and increased tension, frustration, anxiety, conflict, and ultimately turnover: “If roles are not clearly defined, the organization invites unnecessary and unproductive conflict due to the resulting ambiguity” (Ford & Randolph, 1992, p. 281). He further discussed the correlation between role ambiguity and decreased motivation, lack of organizational commitment, and decreased productivity and overall performance. According to Bauer (2002), time becomes a major factor in the team formation process. Project teams yield different results at different time periods; consequently, the key to overcome the difficulties associated with role ambiguity is to allow teams to fully develop in order to be able to perform optimally. Therefore, poorly defined roles can become a major barrier to project team development and success because of role conflict. As such, defining roles and responsibilities is a critical success factor for projects (Anantatmula, 2008). Kerzner (2006) suggested that team development efforts are hampered when role conflict exists among individuals. To overcome the challenges of role ambiguity, Bauer and Simmon (2006) believed that role clarification becomes paramount and required a clear delineation of the organizational structure, the departmental relationships, the job content, the functional responsibilities and authority, and the decision-making process.

Conflict can also be fueled from project objectives that are inadequately defined and incongruent with other projects. Finally, failure to set project priorities can exacerbate disputes among team members. The project manager constantly juggles with different project needs to make sure that customer satisfaction and stakeholder expectations are met (Guan, 2007).

The Correlation Between Conflict and Project Commitment

Leung, Ng, and Cheung (2004) believed that management mechanisms rather than particular project goals directly affect team member satisfaction. They suggested that cooperation and participation, task and team conflict, and goal commitment are the critical factors influencing team member fulfillment with high task and team conflict in the goal setting process significantly improving the positive relationship between commitment and participant satisfaction in the management process. Conflict provides an opportunity for team members to think through ideas, reinforce commitments, provide better performance, and improve outcomes. Leung et al. suggested that conflict should be instigated or reduced based on the level of commitment.


Groupthink is a concept that refers to faulty decision making in a group (Irving, 1982). Groups experiencing groupthink do not consider all alternatives and they desire unanimity at the expense of quality decisions. Dimitroff, Schmidt, and Bond (2005) explained how NASA developed a culture built upon success that generated complacency, which ultimately led to groupthink. Groupthink occurred because NASA teams were highly cohesive and they were under considerable pressure to make quality decisions. They failed to be critical of each other's ideas, examine early alternatives, seek expert opinion, and have contingency plans. This conflict-related behavior was identified as one of the root causes for the Challenger and Columbia failures.

Groupthink includes the following: invulnerability, which leads to excessive optimism; collective rationalism, which results in ignoring and rationalizing problems; pressure on others, which is the suppression of anyone's doubts about the group's collective illusion; self-censorship, which results in a lack of disagreement; and, unanimity, which, gives the group the illusions of agreement and harmony because no one with a different opinions wants to speak up. Groupthink creates an environment where no one wants to be different from the group because of fear of rejection and separation. Consequently, certain types of conflict are not only valuable to team growth; they are indispensable to team success.

Fear of Conflict: A Team Dysfunction

According to Lencioni (2002), teams need conflict to develop and mature. Conflict is important, beneficial, and should be instigated through various methods such as mining, a process of bringing out sensitive issues to the group for discussion, and real time permission, which is the process of facing healthy debate. Lencioni suggested that project managers should avoid interfering when their team members engage in conflict and allow conflict resolution to come naturally.

The summary of literature review is presented in Table 1.

Table 1. Literature Review Summary

Conflict is a danger to avoid or to, at least, control effectively
Concept References
Avoid or eliminate conflict because it is dysfunctional Thamhain (2004)
Avoid people-focused conflict because it is always detrimental to team performance Gardiner & Simmons (1998), Cameron & Whetten (2007), Verma (1996)
Control task-focused conflict because it is only beneficial in certain environments De Dreu & Weingart (2003)
Control interface conflict because it can harm the project's outcome Awakul & Ogunlana (2002)
Understand and control conflict that stems from global projects Damian & Zowghi (2002), Mahalingham & Levitt (2007)
Anticipate and manage conflict that results from project closeout Theodore (1971)
Anticipate and avoid conflict associated with role ambiguity and poor definition of goals and priorities Kerzner (2006), Guan (2007), Bauer (2002), Bauer & Simmon (2006)
Conflict is an opportunity to embrace and stimulate
Encourage task-focused conflict because it can stimulate creativity and innovation Ohlendorf (2001), Cameron & Whetten (2007), Lencioni (2002)
Encourage task and team conflict because it increases commitment and satisfaction Leung, Ng, & Cheung (2006)
Encourage conflict to avoid groupthink Dimitroff, Schmidt, & Bond (2005), Irving (1982)

Table 1 shows that conflict is multi-faceted. According to some, it is strictly negative, to others it can have positive outcomes, and to a few, it is essential. The question is What is the real value of conflict

within project teams and how does it affect team performance? The intent of the following discussion is to break down the various views of conflict into a comprehensive and logical analysis to understand many complex effects of conflict on individuals and projects.

Analysis and Discussion

Conflicts are integral to projects as they are often associated with complexity, unknowns, and changing requirements. Conflict and its influence on team performance and project success has changed over time. Conflict is no longer perceived as something bad that always needs to be avoided or eliminated. Conflict is inevitable, therefore, it should be managed constructively so that teams can develop and progress over the lifetime of a project. Actually, low levels of conflict can sometimes even be harmful to project success.

As discussed in the previous section, there are different types of conflict and each one influences the project environment differently and each one is managed differently with a different approach (Figure 1). The goal is to understand which type and level of conflict is detrimental to achieving project goals and which one will take the project team to a higher level of performance. Regardless of its negative or positive values, conflict needs to be managed.

The Correlation Between Conflict and Performance Over Time

Figure 1. The Correlation Between Conflict and Performance Over Time

While either type of conflict—task-oriented or people-oriented—can have a positive influence on team performance, task-oriented conflict offers a bigger pay off because it is concerned with the substance of the work instead of the struggles with peers and leadership and personality differences. Conflict forces team members to address some of their assumptions and override their need for agreement, thus leading to better performance. Teams engaged in task-oriented conflict direct their actions towards work. The conflict forces them to be concerned with the tasks to complete and the goals to achieve.

Conflict: A Necessity to Team Performance and Project Success

Project teams are made of different people who come from different disciplines and bring to the group an incredible amount of knowledge, ideas, and experience. The conflict that stems from varying concepts is important, positive, and beneficial. Project teams that are not stimulated by healthy debate, discussions, and disagreements quickly fall into inertia, which can ultimately lead to project failure. The Challenger and Columbia disasters are extreme examples, which illustrate the results of groupthink within an organization (Dimitroff, Schmidt, & Bond, 2005). Groupthink can easily happen because there is an overall negative connotation associated with conflict. Many people avoid conflict because it is difficult, stressful, time consuming, challenging and it affects interpersonal relationships.

It takes more effort to justify different concepts to a group rather than follow group consensus. This type of thinking impairs people's judgment and ultimately makes them reject any ideas or information that does not fit the mold. Groupthink can conceal team inefficiencies and result in flawed decisions. Although cohesive groups tend to be more effective, they often lack innovation, curiosity, and creativity, which are vital to team development and progress.

When complacency settles within a project team, it becomes the responsibility of the project manager to challenge team assumptions and single-minded alternatives to generate diverse opinions and effective communication. The project manager needs to foster a safe environment that promotes open discussion where individuals are not afraid to share their ideas and challenge group opinions. An effective strategy to stimulate healthy conflict during meetings is to assign someone to play the role of devil's advocate who can be used to test the quality of the original ideas and identify any possible weaknesses.

Team members will more than likely dislike anyone who challenges them because it forces them to accept criticism, step out of their comfort zone, and evaluate their own ideas; but the results of team disagreements will be more beneficial to the team and the project in the end. Therefore, in order to avoid groupthink, the project manager should make the team aware of the causes and consequences of groupthink at the onset of the project and be neutral when assigning tasks to a group, initially withholding any preferences and expectations. This practice can be especially effective if the project manager consistently encourages an atmosphere of open inquiry. In contrast to the negative values of groupthink, there is ultimately a need for team consensus to achieve project goals (Verma, 1996).

The research of Leung et al. (2004) presented an interesting viewpoint regarding the positive values of conflict and its relationship with goal commitment and overall team member satisfaction. It is logical that individuals who are committed to achieving project objectives and participating in the goal setting process will have a better predisposition to task conflict since they will view it as an opportunity to brainstorm and select the best alternative. The freedom to share opinions, question ideas and be an intricate part of the project process is likely to increase personal fulfillment.

Lencioni's (2002) position towards conflict is different from many others. He suggested that it is actually dysfunctional to fear and avoid conflict: “it is key that leaders demonstrate restraint when their people engage in conflict, and allow resolution to occur naturally, as messy as it can sometimes be” (p. 206). Although conflict is essential to intellectual resolution of an issue, team members might not be equipped to handle conflict on their own, even if the conflict is restricted to concepts and ideas. Conflict resolution strategies require skills and training and, therefore, some team members might be ill prepared to handle it constructively without the guidance of an experienced project manager.

Furthermore, Lencioni corroborated the results of Leung et al. (2003): the absence of healthy conflict can lead to an overall lack of commitment towards project goals. Team members, who do not voice their opinion, rarely buy in and commit to decisions that ultimately lead to dissatisfaction. Teams, which engage in conflict identify and utilize the ideas of all the team members, solve real problems quickly and put forth important topics for discussion. Committed individuals take ownership and responsibility and hold each other accountable. Consequently, healthy conflict is necessary to increase individuals' commitment, which results in participants' satisfaction.

The Pitfalls of Conflict

In general, people-oriented conflict is perceived as detrimental to team cohesiveness. It is considered harmful to relationships, extremely difficult to resolve, and its long-term effects can be destructive to people who need to work together towards common goals. Moreover, if left unresolved, these conflicts can create growing and irreversible gaps between parties that can lead to absenteeism, turnover, and ultimately project failure (Cameron & Whetten, 2007). Gardiner and Simmons (1998) supported this view by characterizing conflict caused by people as wasteful, time consuming, and expensive.

People-oriented conflict can be worsened by role conflict. When people's roles, responsibilities, and authority are poorly defined at the beginning of a project, heated disagreements are bound to occur. Failure to set project priorities, create objectives that are congruent with the organization's strategies, and clearly delineate team members' duties will hinder team development and project success (Kerzner, 2006). However, people-oriented conflict may be, to some extent, beneficial if teams can be confrontational but capable of mediating conflict thereby improving performance and strengthening relationships. Further, it falls in line with today's business model that promotes employee empowerment and participative decision making.

The shift from hierarchical groups to team groups is becoming more widespread. With time, selfmanaged team can evolve into self-directed team who, instead, define a common goal themselves. While the benefits are numerous, a major downside of this innovative structure is role ambiguity. Role ambiguity stems from poorly defined expectations, priorities, behaviors, and performance levels and ultimately leads to detrimental conflict that can jeopardize project success. The key to overcome this challenge and reap the benefits of teamwork is to allow teams to form and develop fully. As trust and communication improve, role ambiguity declines and team performance increases. The important question, though, is how long are companies willing to wait for the positive benefits of the team structure and how long are they willing to pay the short term costs such as training and team meetings to achieve the possible long-term productivity and cost advantages of greater output and efficiency (Bauer, 2002)? This issue is more relevant in the context of a project, which is a one-time effort.

Project managers become responsible for decreasing the role ambiguity, which is an important issue for team development. However, Silverman and Propst (1996) raised an important issue with the use of self-managed and self-directed teams within the project environments. They believed that temporary teams that come together briefly to address a specific issue, problem, or challenge are not suited for selfmanagement because each group member has little influence over the others and little knowledge of the others' specialties.

Conflict and Competition in Project Environment

Conflict resulting from competition is generally considered to increase productivity in organizations because it leads individuals to greater teamwork; however, this is usually the case when these individuals work independently and do not interact with each other on a regular basis. Conversely, task interdependency, which is crucial to project management, can lead to high levels of conflict and lower performance. In this situation, competition can have destructive effects on project success. This type of conflict is always dysfunctional and needs to be solved early on using effective communication, increased trust, understanding of each other's roles and responsibilities and team building activities that strengthen personal and working relationships.

The positive correlation between task-oriented conflict and team performance is not without apprehensions. De Dreu and Weingart (2003) believed that, in contrast to what has been suggested, there might be a strong and negative relationship between task conflict, team performance and team member satisfaction. According to De Dreu and Weingart, task complexity is only a moderator of conflict. Secondly, conflict can be beneficial, but only up to a certain level. The positive value of conflict quickly breaks down as its level increases.

There are several caveats to this view. First, the advantage of conflict depends on the type of task performed. Routine tasks do not benefit from disagreements because there are standard operating procedures in place to accomplish them; however, non-routine tasks often require examination, analysis, and deliberation. The project environment is made of a multitude of complex tasks that need to be performed in a difficult, changing, and uncertain environment; therefore, it seems logical to deduce that task conflict might actually increase the likelihood of successful completion of activities within the project environment. However, conflict, regardless of its source, can be stressful to people, increase their anxieties and frustration, which can eventually make them resent their work. To counterbalance these negative effects, the project manager needs to find creative solutions to conflict that ensure that both parties' needs are met through collaborative and innovative solutions.

Project-Specific Conflicts

Large projects are likely to face additional conflicts and disputes because they involve many individuals, groups, or organizations whose interests in the project are either positively or negatively impacted as a result of the project outcomes. The difference in the attitude of stakeholders towards the project often creates conflict; therefore, proper conflict management can determine project success or failure (Awakul & Ogunlana, 2002). Conflict can be minimized if stakeholders are well informed and empowered. There can also be some benefits to the anticipation of conflict in these types of projects. In general, conflict in these large projects is detrimental in achieving project goals, and should, therefore, be managed throughout the project life cycle similar to any other variables such as quality, time, cost, and scope.

Global projects deal with additional and unique types of conflict that stem from the differences in work cultures. International projects are subject to little synchronous communication, which fails to establish an environment of trust. Conflict is exacerbated by a lack of cohesion among team members and a lack of awareness of the local working context, which makes it difficult to know what people's positions are during negotiations (Damian & Zowghi, 2002). There are three main difficulties in analyzing conflicts in international projects: first, long distances create delays when disputes arise and issues remain unresolved longer than necessary, which further affects the level of trust among stakeholders; second, the communication of complex project requirements becomes challenging; finally, issues arise from the differences in workplace norms and cultural values. The project manager's main goal is to avoid conflicts from falling into a communication breakdown and to stimulate disagreements that can benefit the project. The project manager needs to be aware of the sources of conflict that characterize global projects such as multiple locations and organizations, languages, time zones, and culture in order to be able to foster open and effective discussions and achieve a common understanding of different viewpoints.

Conflict Resolution Strategies

As a summary to our discussions and analysis, Table 2 presents various sources of conflict, their impact on the project team and project success, and the associated effective conflict resolution strategy:

Table 2. Conflict Management Strategies

Conflict Source Description Impact Strategy

People-focused/personal differences (Cameron & Whetten, 2007); Interpersonal (Mantel & Meredith, 2009) and (Verma, 1996); Relationship issues (De Dreu & Weingart, 2003); Personal traits (Gardiner & Simmons, 1998)

This conflict stems from incompatible values and needs, and differences in personalities, interpretation, and expectations.

The conflict grows due to a lack of understanding or inability to manage the various personalities encountered.

It is a high level and emotional type of conflict that is difficult to resolve and can harm team members' relationships. It can increase absenteeism and turnover and lower team performance and work satisfaction.

img Mostly negative

img Diagnose the conflict early on and manage it constructively using a collaborative approach.

img Increase the level of trust and understanding; maintain open communication and psychological safety.

img Develop active listening skills to give people the opportunity to disagree and express their opinions.

img Encourage team building to develop beneficial coping strategies and learn to develop highly flexible behaviors.

Unresolved prior conflicts

(Billows, 2006) and (Verma, 1996)

This conflict occurs when people bring to the team past grudges and unresolved issues.

It creates a tense atmosphere and defensive behaviors among team members.

img Negative

img Use a collaborative approach to mend and strengthen people's relationships.

Issue-focused (Cameron & Whetten, 2007); Task issues (De Dreu & Weingart, 2003)

This conflict is associated with the project's end results and performance requirements.

It generates new ideas and solutions because it is a rational approach to conflict.

Its effect will depend on the type of task (routine or complex) and it is only beneficial up to a certain level.

img Mostly positive but can become negative if the conflict is too intense.

img Foster a safe environment that encourages open communication and high levels of trust.

img Resolve disagreements through negotiations.

Goals and priorities (Billows, 2006), (Guan, 2007), (Kerzner, 2006), Leung et al., 2004), (Mantel & Meredith, 2009), (Bauer, 2002), (Bauer & Simmon, 2006), (Silverman & Propst, 1996) and (Verma, 1996); Values, interest and objectives (Gardiner & Simmons, 1998); Intrapersonal (Cameron & Whetten, 2007)

This conflict stems from diverging goals, objectives and priorities, or lack thereof

This type of conflict is unproductive because it leads to task overlap, poor communication, and waste of resources. Project participants are driven by what benefits them instead of collaborating towards project goals.

It leads to decreased personal motivation and performance because of unmet personal and professional expectations, but this type of interpersonal conflict may not affect the project team.

Goal conflict is not as harmful as people-oriented conflict.

img Mostly negative

img Establish SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely) goals that are not incongruent with other organizational goals.

img Perform careful project planning and constantly communicate with all stakeholders.

img Ask team members where they see themselves fit into the project and assign roles accordingly based on experience, competency, and knowledge.

img Clearly delineate roles, responsibilities, and authority at the beginning of the project and review them throughout the project lifecycle.

img Give the project manager the appropriate level of authority and punishment power.

img Create a balanced set of interests among stakeholders.

Increase team commitment, cooperation, and participation.

img Allow the team to fully develop and provide the necessary resources to accomplish that goal, i.e. training, etc.

img Provide role clarification.

img Appropriate use of selfmanaged or self-directed teams.

Authority based (Mantel & Meredith, 2009)

This conflict stems from the uncertainty about who has the authority to make decisions.

It can result in high levels of stress, anxieties, and frustration because of poorly defined roles, responsibilities, and authority.

img Negative

img Clearly define responsibilities and authority at the onset of the project.

Administrative/behavior regulations (Verma, 1996)

This conflict is connected with the organization's management structure, philosophy, and techniques. It is based on the definition of the responsibilities and authority for the project's tasks, functions, and decisions.

It can lead to high levels of conflict and frustration because individuals may resist the limits placed on their actions. They may also experience anxieties because of their diverging views of the organization's policies and procedures.

img Negative

img Increase team member involvement throughout the project lifecycle.

Role incompatibility (Cameron & Whetten, 2007) and (Verma, 1996)

This conflict stems from the perception that an individual's assigned role is incompatible because he is working in an environment with different bases of information.

It increase the level of confusion when people are required to communicate with various sets of people, work with different reporting systems and receive instructions from different supervisors.

img Negative

img Improve organization processes.

img Define responsibilities clearly and avoid task overlap.

img Improve communication.

img Ensure that people are assigned to tasks that are related to their skills, experience, and previous positions.

Organization differentiation or specialization (Gardiner & Simmons, 1998) and (Verma, 1996)

This conflict results from different individuals perceiving the same thing differently.

It increases misunderstandings and confusion because team members do not understand each other due to differing viewpoints, “language,” goals and ways of doing things.

img Negative

img Increase team-building activities to smooth out participants' differences in a non-threatening environment to become familiar with each other and to understand where others are coming from to create a common mindset.

Task interdependency

(Gardiner & Simmons, 1998) and (Verma, 1996)

This conflict results from the dependency upon others to complete one's work (information, assistance, compliance, feedback, etc.)

It increases misunderstandings, missed deadlines, poor decision making because of a lack of information and feedback among team members.

img Negative

img Increase the level of trust among team members.

img Increase effective communication.

img Create shared goals and understanding.

Communication (Gardiner & Simmons, 1998) and (Verma, 1996); Information deficiencies (Cameron & Whetten, 2007)

This conflict results from poor and ineffective communication as well as misinformation.

It creates high levels of dysfunctional conflict because of misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Team members lack common experience and knowledge about each other's responsibilities, which leads to a lack of collaboration and unreasonable demands because of ignorance. It causes frictions, frustrations, and inefficiencies. It makes negotiations and the explanation of differing viewpoints difficult.

img Negative

img Include team-building activities to accelerate the integrative process to overcome the effects of differentiation. It gives team members the opportunity to communicate, interact, and learn about each other on a personal and professional level.

Culture (Xie, Song, Stringfellow, 1998)

This conflict stems from different cultural values and norms.

It may hinder task execution and effective communication. The conflict resolution method is contingent on the culture and the level of conflict involved.

img Negative

img Training and experience to adopt resolution techniques that match the level of conflict.

img Be proactive and aware of important cultural offenses.

Institutional (Mahalingham & Levitt 2007)

This conflict stems from differences in workplace norms, legal regulations, and cultural values.

It creates misunderstandings as well as increased costs and delays.

img Requires training, experience, effective communication to determine the causes of the conflict and judge the relative ease to resolve it.

Environmentally induced stress

(Cameron & Whetten, 2007); Tension (Gardiner & Simmons, 1998)

This conflict stems from a fast-paced environment characterized by high levels of stress as well as unresolved and mounting interpersonal tensions due to high uncertainty.

It can lead to low morale and possible turn over due to inconsistent demands, stress, and identity crisis.

img Negative

img Plan social interactions at strategic project milestones to create a better atmosphere.

Termination/reassignment (Theodore, 1971)

This conflict arises from poor project closeout procedures and inadequate reassignments.

It creates high levels of stress, anxiety, and frustration.

imgNegative, but it can be positive it is offers team members new opportunities and challenges.

img Carefully plan the termination of a project.

img Provide guidance at a time of change; help about project reassignments, career opportunities, and offer emotional support.

Interface (Awakul & Ogunlana, 2002); Intergroup (Cameron & Whetten, 2007)

This conflict involves the project team and groups that are outside of the project.

It creates dysfunctional conflict because of incompatible requirements from different social groups.

img Mostly negative

img Increase the communication flow with affected groups and ensure that they are involved in the project planning process.

img Present accurate and detailed information during the initiation and planning phases.

Groupthink (Dimitroff, Schmidt, Bond, 2005), (Irving, 1982); Need for consensus (Verma, 1996)

This conflict stems from failure to generate diverse opinions through brainstorming.

It leads to flawed ideas and missed inefficiencies because of collective rationalism, self-censorship, fear of separation, a need for unanimity, etc.

img Foster open and effective communication.

img Create a safe environment.

img Assign a devil's advocate to stimulate creativity.


Conflict is inevitable, more so in projects because project teams are populated with team members from different disciplines and diverse backgrounds and perceptions. In today's project work environment that is often managed with global workforce, conflict is exacerbated because projects are complex, with aggressive deadlines and budgets. Conflict can be positive if it provides clarity to important issues and problems; improves communication among team members and stakeholders; and builds cooperation, collaboration and team cohesion. However, conflict can be negative if it undermines the team's morale and often leads to irresponsible behavior such as gossip, and deflects attention from important tasks.

Conflict is neither good nor bad. It can be both beneficial and dysfunctional. On one hand, conflict can stimulate change, improve communication, encourage creativity and innovation, and increase performance and group cohesiveness; on the other hand, conflict can increase stress, lower job satisfaction and moral, and ultimately lead to project failure.

The key to managing conflict well is choosing and executing the strategy that best fits the situation. There is a menu of strategies the project manager can choose from when in conflict situations: forcing— using formal authority or other power to satisfy his or her concerns without regard to the concerns of the other party; accommodating—allowing the other party to satisfy their concerns while neglecting his or hers; avoiding—not paying attention to the conflict and not taking any action to resolve it; compromising —attempting to resolve a conflict by identifying a solution that is partially satisfactorily to both parties, but completely satisfactorily to neither; and collaborating - cooperating with the other party to understand their concerns and expressing his or her concerns in an effort to find a mutually and completely satisfactorily solution. Skilled project managers should be able to quickly understand conflict situations and use the appropriate conflict management strategy for each situation. The project manager should favor collaboration whenever possible because it promotes creative problem solving and it is a way of fostering mutual respect and rapport.

Limitations of the Study and Future Direction

This paper focused on various types and sources of conflict in the project environment and their specific effects on the project and project team. However, the study is mostly based on analysis of past research and caution must be exercised in interpreting the findings of this study. Various strategies recommended in this paper need to be validated by using projects of different size, type, and from different industries to generalize these results.

Suggested future analysis includes further development of detailed conflict resolution strategies based on each situation to manage conflict successfully and the creation of an effective model of conflict management to help project managers implement a specific, useful, and systematic approach to project conflict.


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1 This section is adapted from Stephen P. Robbins, 1974, Managing organizational conflict: a nontraditional approach, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, pp. 11–25; and Stephen P. Robbins, 1979, Organizational behavior, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, p. 289; and, Stephen P. Robbins and Robin Stuart-Kotze, 1986, Management: concepts and practices, Canadian Edition, Toronto, ON: Prentice-Hall Canada Inc., p. 483.

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