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www.expresscomputeronline.com WEEKLY INSIGHT FOR TECHNOLOGY PROFESSIONALS
26 November 2007  
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Home - Technology Life - Article

Soft Skills

Managing conflicts in projects

Ulhas Samant focuses on the causes of conflicts and how they are viewed in the current working environment.

Project manager Rita had asked Rahul, a senior programmer, to plan on working a couple of overtime hours the following Thurs-day and Friday evenings. Rahul refused. She wondered if Rahul did not yield to her because she was too kind when she asked or because she was a female or because Rahul was envious that she got the project-leader position for which both had competed. Rahul also was uncomfortable with this interaction. The seeds of conflict are planted when disharmony is felt by any one of the participants. Rahul had no clue that Rita is upset. Next time Rita approaches Rahul she may change her approach. She may be more abrupt and Rahul may then, in turn, react negatively to Rita, thus escalating the conflict. Individuals sometimes encounter stress and negative emotion out of an interaction—whether or not they ever confront each other about their feelings.

Wherever choices exist there is potential for disagreement. The question is how they should be handled. Before going into a detailed discussion on different conflict management approaches let us discuss how conflicts are viewed in a current working environment and what can be the causes of a conflict. Here is a comparison of traditional and contemporary views (Fig. 1).

Conflict: changing views  
Traditional Contemporary
Avoid conflicts Conflicts can be beneficial
Conflicts make the organization Conflicts are inevitable in any organization
The best way to avoid conflict is physical separation of individuals or the management intervention Identify root causes and use problem solving approaches; involve people
Fig.1

Can conflicts be beneficial? Yes, when they make you raise and address a problem. They can motivate the people to participate. They also energize the work because most appropriate issues are worked upon.

Project organizations are major sources of conflict and project managers need to have conflict management abilities. That is because there is a concentration of professionals of different disciplines for a limited time and these people may be having divergent interests. Const-raints like cost and schedule may add to the problem. In a large team lack of communication can also be a handicap. Personality can be one of the reasons, though hardly all the conflicts can be attributed to it. (See Fig. 2).

Reasons for conflict
Situation Reason
I do not want work with that lady Personality
Her project estimates are not realistic Cost and effort estimates
"The suggested architecture is not suitable for this problem" Technical opinion
The project-schedule is aggressive Schedule
The approval process is tedious Bureaucracy
"The resource-manager does not allocate resources to my project" Resources
Fig. 2

Conflict management approaches

The primary responsibility of resolving conflicts in a project lies with the project manager. He should be able to asses the situation and pick up a suitable approach to resolve the conflict. There are five approaches to resolve conflicts. These are

  • Withdrawal (avoidance)
  • Smoothing
  • Compromising
  • Problem-solving (also known as confronting)
  • Forcing

There are a few situations to explain different approaches (Fig. 3).

Of all, problem-solving is the best approach in many situations. This involves collecting and analyzing the information and deciding on the best alternative. The first two of these five i.e. withdrawal and smoothing, offer temporary solution and fail to resolve the problem. The next table (Fig. 4) compares various conflict management approaches. The last two columns tell about the kind of consideration for performance objectives and (employee) relation, in each of these approaches.

Examples for various approaches  
Situation Approach
"The real problem seems to be not the lack of skills in people, but lack of understanding of what needs to be done. Refer this detailed study, which should help you find the reasons" Confronting (problem-solving)
We cannot decide about outsourcing this work. We will wait until our next meeting Withdrawal (avoidance)
Rakesh, what if we get new ERP software for new product development and use existing PDM package for maintaining old drawings Compromising
"Change the architecture, the way he said.I do not want any discussions" Forcing
"Madhav and Meena, you agree that our department needs this project badly.
With that in mind, can we work together something"
Smoothing
Fig.3

Minimizing conflicts

Is there anything a project manager can do to reduce conflicts? These are the approaches they can take when conflicts occur:

  • Ensure that roles and responsibilities are clearly defined for all positions and no tasks “fall in a crack”
  • Meet sub-ordinates and discuss about the challenges and issues
  • Conduct regular training on topics like communications, conflict-management
  • Encourage use of suggestion-box (many organizations have it nowadays in the form of an e-mail account)
  • Hold management meetings to discuss about new projects, etc. (to some extent this may depend upon an organization’s policy)
  • Work the issue, not the person
  • Take the help of a third party to mediate
Comparing various conflict management approaches
Conflict management approach
Outcome
Performance goal
Relation
Withdrawal (avoidance) Lose-leave Low Low
Smoothing Yield-Lose Low High
Compromising Compromise Medium Medium
Problem-solving (also known as confronting) Integrative High High
Forcing Win-lose High Low
Fig.4

By utilizing project management principles and applying conflict management approaches properly, you must be able to establish an environment where creativity and innovation are encouraged and project goals are met.

Ulhas Samant is a project management trainer from Pune.
E-mail: ulhas_samant@yahoo.com

 


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