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Understanding Project Conflict

Projects are the perfect storm for creating conflict. They’re usually comprised of different teams each with different individuals who have different personalities thrown into a pressure cooker of time, budget, and scope constraints. Project managers are charged with keeping the lid on, to preventing the explosions that could derail the project.

It should come as no surprise that Googling “project management conflict resolution” yields almost 5 million search results -- Most of which presume that conflict is bad and should be mitigated as quickly as possible.  

What most of these Google results don’t tell us is that there are different categories along the conflict spectrum - relationship, task, and process conflicts.

By applying a bit of science to our projects, we are able to drive faster resolutions, more successful projects, and better relationships within cross-functional teams.  In this blog, we’ll discuss three categories of conflict and how we address each of them.

What is relationship conflict?

Let’s start with relationship conflict - the personal incompatibilities that cultivate irritation, resentment, and frustration between team members.  An example of relationship conflict is when someone interferes with the goals or objectives of another person – such as purposefully not communicating in order to slow down a project or make a team member look bad.  

What should be done about relationship conflict?

Relationship conflict breeds grudges, jealousy, and hurt feelings and is never productive to any project. It should be stopped immediately, typically by involving upper management and human resources. The resolution to this would be adhering to a company’s code of conduct and in my experience a project manager doesn’t have the ability to formally reprimand employees or make fire decisions.

What is task conflict?

Task conflict is the natural friction between the interests and goals and the viewpoints and opinions of conflicting parties.  

An example of behavioral conflict in a project is the difference between the goals of a project manager (deliver on time, within budget, and in scope) and a developer (to deliver a quality product regardless of how much it costs or how long it takes).   

“...Through that group of incredibly talented people bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise, and working together they polish each other and they polish the ideas, and what comes out are these really beautiful stones. ”

— Steve Jobs

What should be done about task conflict?

Task conflict can be healthy for a project, by ultimately delivering creative and innovative solutions. Project managers should monitor task conflict to make sure all parties are moving towards compromise or positive outcomes for the project but should also be prepared to step in if personal attacks associated with behavioral conflict begin to occur.

What is process conflict?

Process conflicts are controversies about how a task will be performed, including the anxiety that brews in a team who isn’t behind the way a project is being run.  If you’ve ever felt that the assignments, dependencies, or distribution of work for a project were all wrong, you’ve experienced process conflict. Process conflict can muck up a project but over the course of time, it can also lead to attrition.

What should be done about process conflict?

Project managers can mitigate process conflict by providing clear and effective communication about role definitions (RACI matrices, project team kickoff meetings), articulating key project milestones (gantt charts and project schedules), and creating an environment of trust and fellowship among cross functional teams.  This is where we earn the “Manager” in our titles.

Management can also chip in, by encouraging a feedback culture where employees know that their concerns are heard.  Project and milestone post-mortems also reveal opportunities for improvement in the project process.

The science of project conflict can be a little bit of a rabbit hole but trust me - it makes for interesting reading! I recommend these articles to learn more about project conflict and how it affects teams: