Conflict Resolution in Project Management

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Conflicts are unavoidable in projects, as conflicts with others are considered part of human nature. While it is unavoidable it is however of great importance to minimize conflict in projects, as they may lead to delays, improper work and poor results, increased cost etc. When properly handled, conflicts can, however, lead to improved involvement and cohesion as well as clarification of key issues and values. A project manager should thus possess skills in identifying conflict, approaching and managing conflict as well as creating an environment, that aims to reduce conflicts.

Sources of conflict may come from areas as different as poor communication, differences in values or limited resources. As there is no one origin, there can be no one solution, i.e. no one-size-fits-all. Hence the manager must possess knowledge of different ways to handle conflict, and know when to tackle conflict and when not to.

This work aims at explaining some of the key frameworks surrounding conflict and their sources, as well as different approaches to conflict management. Multiple methods will be touched upon, but a single one explained more in depth, in an attempt at making it a more applicaple tool.

The Importance of Conflict Management

Conflict is unavoidable in human nature, and as all projects involve human interaction conflict is bound to arise. This is not necessarily a negative scenario, as conflict may lead to positive results if managed correctly. The benefits are both personal and professional, where the ones most relevant to project management may be ones such as:[1] [2]

  • Increased involvement and coesion.
  • Increased innovation and creativity.
  • Clarification of key issues and values.
  • Better decision making.
  • Greater productivity

Mismanaged conflict may however prove destructive, as it can lead to a series of negative results, such as: [1] [3]

  • Unclear view on responsibilities.
  • Lack of efficiency.
  • Lost work time.
  • Lowered motivation.
  • Bad decision making.
  • Health costs.
  • Lost employees.

The two final points may affect not only the singular project but the organization as a whole. The long-term stress following an unresolved conflict can lead to sick leave which is expensive for the company, or the stress may ultimately result in the employee leaving the company for good stumping productivity and adding expenses for refilling the position. [3]

Even from this short list, that ignores the more personal aspects of conflicts, it appears evident that proper conflict management is crucial.

What is Conflict?

Webster defines conflict as "competitive or opposing action of incompatibles : antagonistic state or action (as of divergent ideas, interests, or persons)" [4]. In a project or business related view the definition given by Proksch[5], namely " we understand the term conflict to mean a social phenomenon which can arise when people interact and pursue common goals", may be of greater relevance. Proksch goes on to elaborate that there is a difference between a conflict and a disagreement. A disagreement arises occurs when two parties have a difference in interest or opinion and work against each other to reach their own targets. He argues that the situation shall not be labeled a conflict until " the factual problem at hand is further complicated by a relationship problem"[5]. This view is shared by Dana, who further explains that a disagreement becomes a conflict when the parties are interdependent, blame each other, are angry at one another and ultimately cause a problem for the business through their behaviour [6].

Sources of Conflict

The literature on conflict management lists multiple reasons for a conflict to occur, and each author introduces new suggestions. Some key aspects do, however, appear to reoccur throughout the literature[1][2][5], such as;

  • Limited resources - all projects compete for the same pool of resources, which may be insufficient.
  • Difference in objectives - not all members of a project necessarily works towards the same goal. One example could be a high-achiever versus a social loafer or freeloader.
  • Miscommunication - at times conflict arise from things as simple as poor communication. Meaning can be hard to transfer in writing, or words may be interpreted differently by the receiver than they were intended by the sender.
  • Personality clashes - some people just don't get along, so to say. One example could be introverts and extroverts.

One common trait for all sources of conflict is, that the origin of the conflict must be known in order to solve the problem optimally and reduce the risk of the conflict reoccuring[1].

Evolution of Conflict

As indicated int he above, conflict does not appear from thin air. It is a process originating in minor disagreements. A common framework for considering the escalation and development of conflict is Glasl's Escalation Model[5].

According to Glasl, there are nine steps to conflict escalation, which are again broken into three stages [5]. Firstly, step 1 through three;

  • 1 - Entrenchment of position - the parties are no longer willing to reconsider their point of view, even when introduced to new facts.
  • 2 - Debate - the discussion starts focusing on winners and losers.
  • 3 - Actions as opposed to words - discussions brake down, and the parties act in attempts to achieve their own targets.

This phase is also known as Resentment. During this phase, it is still possible for the parties to reach a solution through self-help. If they do not manage to do so, the conflict escalates into the next stage;

  • 4 - De-personalization - the opponent is no longer considered as a person, but merely as a problem to overcome. The human interaction is lost.
  • 5 - Loss of face - attempts are made to make the opponent embarrassed or ridiculed.
  • 6 - Threats - threats are put forward in an attempt to put the opponent under pressure

These three steps are known as Exchange of Blows, during which outside mediators are needed to resolve the situation. Otherwise, it may escalate into stage three;

  • 7 - Destructive blows - attempts are made at destroying the opponent's defenses while ensuring one's own continued existence.
  • 8 - Fragmentation - severe damage to opponent, leaving him or her incapacitated.
  • 9 - Into the abyss - being ready to destroy oneself, as long as the opponent goes down.

This final phase is known as Destruction. In this phase, only powerful intervention may aid in resolving the conflict[5].

While Glasl's model is often used, this does not mean that it at all times fits with what is actually observed[5]. As such, many other models exist, including those proposed by Noll, Cornelius, Bramh and more[7]. Some of the highlights of these, including Glasl, is showcased in the figure below.

Figure 1: Examples of how conflict may escalate, according to various models. Modified from D'Errico et al [7]

Conflict Management Strategies

Once again, there are many different views on how parties act in a conflict. The traditional approach centers around five key strategies[1][2]

  • Avoiding - As the name suggests this strategy centers on avoiding or withdrawing from conflict.
  • Accommodating / Smoothing - Centers on maintaining the relationship between the parties rather than achieving a final goal or objective.
  • Compromising - In essence, this method may be referred to as splitting the difference and giving up part of the objective to reach an agreement
  • Competing - One works to achieve one's own goal at all costs, even though it may ultimately sacrifice the relationship. This closely relates to the outcome in Glasl's model.
  • Collaborating - A more time-consuming approach, where the parties are all satisfied with the outcome and the relationship is maintained. This is the ultimate win-win outcome.

While this is the traditional approach and methodology, Dana has identified three main ways in which conflicts are handled; power contests, rights contests, and interest reconciliation. Power contests and rights contests are very similar, and both aim to achieve a win-lose situation. The power contests rely on the disputant to use their power to gain an advantage in the situation. This might be through physical strength, the number of allies or simply threats. The rights contest, on the other hand, relies on using authority to gain an advantage. That can be obtained through management, internal policy manuals, through legal action or - in juvenile situations, seldom related to project management - by involving the other party's parents.

Both scenarios will ultimately lead to a winner and a loser, and more often than not, the relationship between the parties will be lost [6]. The third solution lends itself to interest-based negotiation, as it is a non-adversarial approach that aims to satisfy all parties. One such method is known as mediation[6].


Mediation can be considered to be acting as a third party, to help the parties involved in conflict obtain a result that satisfies both themselves and the company's interests[6][5]. The method can be broken into several steps, in order to explain it more simply. The following is, to a large extent, wholly based on the work of Daniel Dana[6].

Step 1 - Decide to mediate
The purpose of mediation can be defined as "To reach and record a balanced, behaviorally specific, mutually acceptable agreement that defines each one's future behavior with regard to the business problem caused by their conflict."[6]. From this, it follows, that there are cases where mediation is not the proper tool to use. Mediation should, for example, not be used to place blame, decide right or wrong, or to pick sides.
Step 2 - Preliminary meetings
Meeting should be held in private with the parties on a one-by-one scale. The situation is not yet ripe for a three-way meeting. The initial one-on-one meetings should aim to clarify;
  • Each member's view on the situation. The mediator must know how both parties feel in order to succeed.
  • The business problem at hand, that must be solved. In a professional setting, the objectives of the company must be maintained.
  • Explain the details of a future three-way meeting. The mediator does not reach a solution for the parties, and this must often be explained in detail.
  • Make sure, that the parties intend to participate in the three-way meeting.
Step 3 - Plan the context
The mediator must carefully plan out the surroundings, timing, and scheduling of the event, as well as all participants, to ensure the best possible setting for reaching a positive result.
Step 4 - Hold the three-way meeting
During this meeting, the mediator is in charge of keeping the meeting on track. When participants deviate from the task at hand, it falls upon the mediator to guide the conversation back to the central matter. The mediator may also choose to use tactics such as conciliatory gestures to emphasize the positive, the involved parties have expressed about each other, in order to sustain a positive mood in the meeting [6]. Lastly, the mediator must at times simply wait; that is, not suggest solutions or try to dig deeper into the conversation or similar. It is the involved parties that must reach a solution, not the mediator.
Step 4.1 - Making a deal
When the participants are ready a deal should be struck among them. It falls upon the mediator to ensure that the deal is fair and balanced. Often it must also be very specific so as to ensure that further conflict does not arise from this new deal. It must also be taken down in writing.
Step 4.2 - Following up
At the end of the meeting the mediator should set a time for a follow-up meeting, to ensure that the parties are moving in the correct direction regarding their conflict, and that progress is being made and the deal is being upheld.

The steps above are all aimed at solving a conflict between two people, as this is where most conflicts originate[6]. At times it will, however, be necessary to mediate conflict between teams. Dana suggests a methodology to do so, consisting of the following 8 steps;

Step 1 - Define the issue
It can be difficult to ascertain the specific issue causing a conflict when multiple parties are involved. Thus it is crucial to do so before moving forward with the process.
Step 2 - Define the parties
When multiple parties are involved it may not be all parties that possess a central role to the conflict. The mediator must define which parties are the most relevant in order to facilitate an effective mediation.
Step 3 - Get the parties to the table
The mediator must ensure that all relevant parties participate in the meeting and that they all have the same amount of information going in, in order to level the playing field. Invitations to meetings should enclose all participants and should someone opt not to take part it falls upon the mediator to convince the party to do so.
Step 4 - Help the parties define their problems
The parties should all present how they define their problems. They should not use foul language, directed at each other's person, however, and the mediator must ensure that this does not happen. Simultaneously she must make sure that no one party withdraws from the meeting and does not participate. Lastly, no one party should be pointed out as a scapegoat by the others.
Step 5 - Brainstorm options
This step should allow every participating member to make suggestions on how to solve the situation at hand. It is not permitted to interrupt or to criticize suggestions at this ideation stage. The mediator may ultimately want to propose a secret vote to see which suggestion is deemed the most attractive.
Step 6 - Test options against interest and modify if necessary
This is the step where the top ideas from step 5 made be subjected to constructive criticism. Blatant negativity is not allowed as it does not aid in the process, and all member's feelings and thoughts should be taken into consideration, in an attempt to reach the optimal solution.
Step 7 - Finalize an action plan
A detailed action plan on how to progress after the meeting should, similar to the case with only two parties, be specified in writing. The action plan should be specific and detailed.
Step 8 - Ask for commitment.
The last task for the mediator in this setting is to ensure that all parties are willing to commit to the action plan agreed upon. The parties should be asked directly and silence or nodding should not be accepted as sufficient confirmation; it must be an outspoken commitment.

As a team conflict is more complex than conflict among fewer individuals so is the process of mediating this conflict. This means that the steps in the above may be expanded upon greatly. This, however, falls outside the scope of this article and may be covered in a separate article if a higher level of detail is desired.

Prevention of Conflict

As stated previously conflict can, when handled properly, benefit the project in various ways, but might have dire consequences as well. As such, it is of equal importance to attempt to minimize grounds for conflict. This is to a large extent done through preemptive measures, some of which are listed below.

Effective Team Building

At the early stages of project forming, it is crucial to form well-structured teams and to ensure that the members of these function ideally both professionally and personally[1]. This can be achieved by setting clear objectives, attempting to develop common goals and guidelines and streamlining expectations. Many companies offer courses on effective team building, and many larger corporations handle such matters internally in Human Ressources-departments. This is covered in greater detail in Managing groups for high performance.

Conflict Management Training

While efforts can be put forth to lessen the risk of conflict, it cannot be prevented that some conflict will arise. Thus there are benefits to be found, in training not only managers but also the staff involved in the projects on ways to manage conflict. Among other things, it may allow personnel to identify potential conflict at earlier stages and addressing it prior to it becoming a concern. I may also allow staff to handle conflict constructively and solve problems in collaborations when they inevitably arise[1].

Mapping Personality Traits

Multiple companies use various systems to identify and map out personality traits, in order to improve understanding of the individual's characteristics, and how this may affect communication with others[1]. One of these systems is Insights.

Insights Personality Tests

Insights personality tests are based on the work of Dr. Jung, who proposed that our personalities are made up of two traits, Introversion, and Extroversion, as well as four functions, Thinking, Feeling, Sensation and Intuition[8]. Based on the results from the personality test participants will be ranked in four groups; Fiery Red, Sunshine Yellow, Earth Green, and Cool Blue. Typically one or two traits will be dominant and dictate the preferred style of thinking and working, while the remaining are less defining of the individual's personality. In short, the four dominant traits are as follows[9]:

Fiery Red
People in the Fiery Red-category are high-energy extroverts and oriented towards action. They approach others with authority and emit a desire for power and control.
Sunshine Yellow
Sunshine Yellow indicates extroversion and friendliness. People in this category are focused on positivity and human relations, and approach their surroundings with a desire for sociability.
Earth Green
Value and depth in human relations are key points for a person in this category. They want to be considered a reliable resource. They value democratic relations and radiate a desire for understanding.
Cool Blue
Cool Blue defines introverts with a desire to understand the world around them. Written communication is preferred over oral delivery, as to maintain precision and clarity, ensuring the best baseline for analysis.

Each group has strengths and weaknesses, but knowing these aid people in communicating well with each other. For instance, while Fiery Red and Cool Blue have a desire for details and clarity Sunshine Yellow accepts meetings going off topic and has little interest in detail. Many more such clashes in communication exist, and knowing how to approach a peer may greatly reduce the risk of conflict[10]

Case Studies

Vastly different companies and organizations have used Insights® to better certain situations. These include organizations as far apart as the national Danish Football Association (DFA) and social media networking platform LinkedIn. LinkedIn is a rapidly growing company in a global market, which meant multiple newly formed teams at all times. LinkedIn trained internal staff to work as Insights Discovery Practitioners, in order to ensure that all teams have the best possible chances to succeed efficiently without conflict from the very start, and without having to rely on external labor[11]

On a smaller scale, the Danish energy provider Ørsted has implemented Insights Discovery among their staff. The majority of staff participated in mapping personality traits, and the results have since been presented on each individual's desk, ensuring that it is clearly illustrated which traits the person identifies with allowing for more precise communication between personnel.


As have been stated more than once conflicts and their origin is a complex matter. As such conflict management is a complex matter. This article merely touches upon some of the views on modern conflict management, but many more exist. This article should not be considered as an extensive body of knowledge but merely a guideline or framework for the aspiring mediator. It must also be stressed that some situations are so dire that they require professionally trained mediators to be properly handled and managed.

Annotated Bibliography

DeJanasz et al.. Used in the management course Managerial Communication at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. The book covers a wide range of topics regarding high-functioning communication within organizations, such as multicultural management, personality traits, group forming and functions, and conflict management.

Dana. Daniel Dana holds a Ph.D. in psychology, has written several books on the topic of conflict management, has served as a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Hartford Graduate School of Business as well as holding positions at Syracuse University among others. He is the founder of Mediation Training Institute International. The book aims at explaining the framework around conflict and providing the reader with hands-on tools that allow them to tackle conflict themselves.

PMI. The KPI Body of Knowledge covers a vast area of project management areas, but only to little extent touched upon the topic of conflict management. The topic is addressed but takes up less than two pages of writing. As such, the PMI Body of Knowledge is by no means an extensive resource on the matter, and cannot be considered an appropriate stand-alone source for a manager looking to resolve a conflict.

Insights. It should be noted, that Insights® maintains strict control over their material, why only very few valid sources on the methods and personality types are available, and no scientific research on the application of methods have been located. The case study surrounding Ørsted, and other material on the use of the methods, is based on the authors own experience working at said company, and is thusly build on personal experience as well as internal documentation that is not available to be referenced.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 De Janasz, S., Wood, G., Gottschalk, L., Dowd, K. and Scneider, B. (2007). Interpersonal skills in organizations. North Ryde, N.S.W.: McGraw-Hill.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 A guide to the project management body of knowledge. (2017). 6th ed. Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, USA: Project Management Institute.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Caspersen, D. (2015). Changing the conversation. Penguin Books.
  4. (2019). Definition of CONFLICT. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Feb. 2019].
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 Proksch, S. (2016). Conflict Management. Springer.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 Dana, D. (2001). Conflict resolution. McGraw-Hill Professional Book Group.
  7. 7.0 7.1 D'Errico, F., Poggi, I., Vinciarelli, A. and Vincze, L. (2015). Conflict and Multimodal Communication: Social Research and Machine Intelligence. Springer International Publishing
  9. InsideInspiration. (2019). Inside Inspiration. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Feb. 2019].
  10. (2019). Communication Tips for Different Personality Types | AAPS. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Feb. 2019].
  11. (2019). Insights Case Studies - Our impact in the words of our clients. [online] Available at: [Accessed 24 Feb. 2019].
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