Project Management

The Techniques That Don't Resolve Conflict

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A team goes through five stages in a project: forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning. The success of a project depends on how much time the team spends in the storming and performing stages. If a team leader is good at managing conflicts, the storming stage can be shortened, and the team can gain more time for performing. That significantly increases the chances of success.

Many authors and PMI’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) define five techniques to resolve conflicts: withdraw/avoid, smooth/accommodate, compromise/reconcile, force/direct and collaborate/problem solve.

Aside from collaborate/problem solve, in my opinion all the approaches conclude with either one party winning and the other losing, or with both losing. I think these techniques are intended to achieve results only in the short term, and give no thought to what will happen in the long term.

If you use withdraw or force, one person wins and other loses. The winner might be satisfied, but what about the person who has lost? Will he/she not try to recover losses at the next opportunity? In my experience, if you use smooth or compromise, both parties lose by having to give up something that is important to them.

Let’s take a common example: negotiating price with a vendor. A conflict can arise because you both want a favorable price. Suppose you have the upper hand and force the vendor to settle on a considerably lower price than he or she wanted. Have you resolved the conflict? Probably not.

Since the vendor lost in the negotiation, he or she may try to gain back the lost money by working on the lower threshold of the acceptable range, trying to cut corners in the process or production, or using cheaper material. This will degrade the quality of the deliverable. What you think is a win-lose for you could easily become a lose-lose.

The same thing can happen when you negotiate a salary with a candidate, negotiate a promotion/raise with your report, or settle a conflict between two team members by either forcing one, or asking both, to compromise.

Compromise or smooth are even worse, in my opinion. They are lose-lose in the short term and even worse in the long term. That’s because in compromise or smooth, we often sacrifice important things. Later, both parties keep trying to recover the things they compromised away. They repeatedly negotiate with little takeaway. Lots of time is wasted in negotiations and productivity remains low.

I think problem solving/collaborating is the only technique that truly resolves conflicts. The collaboration focuses on the problem and helps solve it to the satisfaction of both parties—and therefore resolves the conflict for good. It’s easier said than done, of course.

I’ll focus on the collaborate/problem solve technique in my next blog. Until then, please share your views. How have you resolved conflict within your team? What were the results in the short-term and long-term?

Posted by Vivek Prakash on: April 14, 2015 02:11 PM | Permalink

Comments (10)

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Hi Vivek,
You have touched a very sensitive part of our day to day practice. In my understanding this way or that way, we practice all the five alternatives not only in work environment but in our life itself. While using any of these techniques we are aware about possible outcomes (short term/long term) and we are prepared for it. As you have suggested here, “problem solving/collaborating” is not an easy one. You can try only if you have sufficient time.
Moral, these techniques depends on how much, time allows you to solve the problem, what is nature of problem, what is nature of stakeholders involved, what is importance/influence level of stakeholders involved, and what is importance level of the problem itself. We calculate these all factors while using these techniques.

Well said Sudarshan. There is no best fit technique for all situations. Every situation demands difference approach and conflict resolution.

Hi Sudarshan & Rachit,

Thanks for your comments. I can understand your point and I am not denying to use these techniques but we should remember that the results we have got using force or compromise will not sustain. We will suffer in long term because Force, withdraw, compromise or smoothing do not resolve the conflict but postpone it and start a hide and seek game.

We use these techniques because we have connected problem solving/collaboration with the time. There is a misconception that problem solving takes time. In most of the case it is as quick as other methods. It just requires a different thinking. I agree when stakeholders are more, it may (not necessary) take some time but you may agree that most of the conflicts are between two. I said it is not easy one because it is not easy for a person to keep his own interest on the side for a moment and think about interests of the other person. It may not be easy for a person to loss at this moment to achieve larger goal. These few things are required to resolve the conflict for good. I will highlight further on this in my next blog.

Thanks again for your comments, I have valuable inputs. I have some more points to address in next blog.

Indeed “problem solving/collaborating” is the only technique that really resolves conflict, so that it won't come back later and cause again trouble. The others rather are decision making techniques. But as those they, too have their value; you do not need to goldplate all decisions by resolving all conflict resulting from different opinions about the best course of action. What you need to keep in mind is that you should try to avoid that those short-term techniques lead to long-term issues, e.g. when it is always the same person that loses when a decision is forced or when a compromise is made.

Hi Thilo,
You are absolutely right. The role of Force/withdraw/Compromise/Smooth is limited to manage situation today or buy out some time for better solution.

Well to cut the long story short it can be concluded that to resolve the conflict any of the techniques can be used according to the situation but i feel if you consider your relationship more important than your work than collaboration is the best option. On the contrary, any of the options can be used to resolve the conflict.
Well !!! The idea can be discussed further.

This is a very good analysis. You are very correct that for long term strategy, you need to solve the problem and bring both the parties to an agreement. Due to human factor, in other techniques, the person who lost will try to settle the score at later.

Agreed Sir.

I agree with Vivek that you need to ultimately resolve the issue coming in your way, however other techniques will also help you, if you need to buy some time or generate options to resolve the issue/problem.

Friends, I have posted a new entry in this sequence "The Only Technique That Resolves Conflicts"

I hope you find it useful. Please do share your views.

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