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How do you Lead your Project Team through a Conflict?

Many of us don’t like conflict, but the truth is that it’s difficult to avoid when running a project. There will always be situations when someone within the team has a different opinion about what needs to happen.

It’s interesting really that we find conflict so difficult and that we often see it as a bad thing.

Conflict can be good – both for the project and the team – if it’s handled correctly.

When conflict is constructive it means that we examine our different points of views with an open mind and learn from each other. The real problem arises when we try to ignore a conflict. When we elegantly push it under the carpet without dealing with it. Then it will mushroom below the surface and eventually become destructive.

Let’s imagine that you are in the start-up phase of your project. The team has been identified and you’re about to make a number of important decisions: which project methodology to use, which tools to use, how to design the solution, which technologies to incorporate and how often the team should get together.

How would you go about leading the team through these decisions?

Would you make all of the decisions on your own, because you are the project manager and you feel that it’s ultimately your responsibility? You would then subsequently inform the team about the decisions and why you’ve made them. Or, would you consult the team and make the decisions democratically as a group? Or perhaps you would make some decisions on your own and delegate others to those who are best qualified to make the decision.

Take a moment to think through the last major decisions you made on your project and how you handled them.

The way you approach decisions says something about how collaborative you are and how you will tend to deal with conflict.

Do you believe that as a project manager you need to make the final decision – also in times of conflict – or do you believe that the team collectively should come to an agreement?

I’m not necessarily trying to tell you that one is better than the other. What’s important is that you become aware of what your default or preferred method is so that you can begin to evaluate if it is also the most effective in a given situation.

I remember that years ago I attended a leadership workshop with my colleagues. My own perception was that my way of leading the team and resolving conflict was very democratic. One of my colleagues turned around to me and said “well, that’s what you think!”. I replied, “yes, I always ask the team for input” to which he responded “True! But at the end you make the decision yourself!” That was a real eye opener to me. Although I consulted the team, my approach was far from democratic!

The Five Styles of Conflict from the Thomas-Kilmann Model

To better understand how we respond during conflict, let’s examine the Thomas-Kilmann model.

Back in the seventies Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann introduced this simple model, which describes five different ways of approaching conflict.

The five styles are:

  1. Competing
  2. Accommodating
  3. Compromising
  4. Collaborating
  5. Avoiding

Each of these styles describe to what extent we are assertive and to what extent we are cooperative in a given situation.

When we are assertive it means that we are predominantly concerned about our own needs and desires.

When we are cooperative it means that we are focused on meeting other people’s needs and preserving our mutual relationship.

Those two dimensions – assertiveness and cooperativeness – are not mutually exclusive. We can be interested in meeting our own needs AND the needs of others at the same time.


Negotiation and Conflict Management


1. Competing

If you use this style you will do everything you can to pursue your own concerns at the expense of someone else.

You are highly assertive and at the same time you are uncooperative. You want to win the argument and you are pushing your own agenda and fighting your own corner.

If you are a strong advocate of using an agile approach on your project for instance, but your team prefers waterfall, you will build the case for agile, arguing why your view is the right one. You will highlight all the positives of agile and you won’t be interested in hearing what your team has to say.

You may even use your position as the project manager to just make the decision that suits you without inviting debate from the team. So in essence, when you compete you get what you want, but you burn your bridges in the process and disengage the team.


2. Accommodating

The accommodating style is the complete opposite of competing. If you tend to use this style you are mostly concerned with satisfying other people’s needs and completely dismiss your own.

You will have a strong desire to please others and a need to be liked. You are worried about upsetting your team members or falling out with people, which is why you quickly give in to other people’s demands.

If you feel, for instance, that agile is the right approach, but someone else pushes for waterfall, you may initially voice your concerns. But you will be quick to agree to the advantages of waterfall – and ultimately accept it as the chosen methodology – even if you would prefer not to. Being overly accommodating is often rooted in a lack of respect for your own views and ideas. Although at a surface level you may appear happy, deep down resentment may build as you feel that you are continuously loosing out.


3. Avoiding

The avoiding style is unassertive and uncooperative. When you use this style you neither pursue your own concerns nor those of the other person. In effect it means that you don’t deal with the conflict at all.

Perhaps you feel that it’s too big and too difficult to decide which methodology the project should use, because you don’t understand the details, or the implications of the decision. As a result you push it aside and play down the importance. You may even tell the team that it’s not an important decision right now. When you sidestep an issue, postpone an issue or simply withdrawing from a threatening situation, you are in effect avoiding the conflict. It may feel good in the short-term, but as the issue hasn’t been resolved it will come back with a vengeance.


4. Collaborating

This style is both assertive and cooperative—the complete opposite of avoiding. When you collaborate you attempt to work with others to find a solution that satisfies all concerns. In order to achieve such a win-win outcome you will have to dig into the detail of the issue and identify the underlying needs and wants of everyone involved.

Looking at the example of agile and waterfall, a true win-win solution could be one where the proponents of waterfall get their need for a well-defined end-deliverables met, whilst the proponents of agile get their need for iterative development met. It’s only by exploring disagreement and examining the underlying needs that true collaboration is possible. When we use the collaborative style we are open to creative solutions and are able to turn conflict into something positive.


5. Compromising

Compromising is moderate in both assertiveness and cooperativeness. It’s a commonly used style, which identifies a mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both sides.

It sits in between competing, accommodating, avoiding and collaborating. When you compromise you gain more than when you accommodate, and give up more than when you compete. Likewise, you address the issue more directly than when you avoid, but you don’t explore it in as much depth as when you collaborate.

In other words, it’s a true compromise! In our agile vs. waterfall conflict, a compromise could mean that the agile camp gets some features that are important to them in exchange for features that are must-have by the waterfall camp. Unfortunately you may end up with a halfway house, which hasn’t been thought through properly, meaning that both parties loose.


We are all able to use all five conflict-handling modes, but most of us tend to rely more heavily on just a few of them.

If you have the habit of using your power as a project manager to make all the decisions and get your needs met, you will find that you won’t have the support of your team.

Collaborating requires more time but will ultimately create the best long-term outcome and generate buy in from all parties. It’s when we collaborate that we’re able to come up with creative solutions and turn conflict into something positive. Going for a win-win may not always be possible, but it’s always good to aim for.

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About Susanne Madsen

Susanne Madsen
Susanne Madsen is an internationally recognised project leadership coach, trainer and consultant. She is the author of The Project Management Coaching Workbook and The Power of Project Leadership (Jan 2015).

Prior to setting up her own business, she worked for 17 years in the corporate sector leading large change programmes of up to $30 million for organisations such as Standard Bank, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. She is a fully qualified Corporate and Executive coach and a member of the Association for Project Management (APM).

Susanne specialises in helping managers improve their leadership skills so that they can gain control of their projects and fast-track their career. She does this through a combination of training, coaching, mentoring and consulting.

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