The management of conflict is an inescapable part of a Project Manager’s responsibility. The ability to identify and effectively respond to conflicts can significantly affect a manager’s overall success in managing a building project. This paper discusses the importance of effectively responding to conflict. Typical forms of conflict are identified and the implications of adopting different responses to these conflicts are evaluated in terms of their likely impact on relationships and the project. Strategies for responding effectively to conflict are included in the paper.
Keywords: Conflict Responses, Conflict Implications, Conflict Resolution Strategies.
The importance of understanding conflict
The building industry poses unique challenges to those working in it. Traditional industry training, economic necessity, modern procurement methods and a heavy reliance on the subcontract system have produced an industry which is extremely fragmented.
In this environment, project managers are required to establish and manage intricate relationship networks for projects of limited life and budget. The very nature of such projects often provides little incentive for the establishment of long term working relationships between project participants.
Short term financial concerns often overshadow the potential benefits of developing and maintaining relationships beyond the limits of the project duration.
The result is often the development of an aggressive ‘winner takes all’ project mentality.
Use of threats, financial manipulation and other forms of coercion almost inevitably become an established part of the project environment.
In these circumstances, several forms of conflict commonly occur.
- Interest conflicts - Structural conflicts - Value conflicts - Relationship conflicts - Data conflicts
Unless project managers are alert and have the skills to manage the levels of conflict effectively, relationships between project participants can deteriorate to such an extent that the original project goals become impossible to achieve.
Responses to conflict
Project managers adopt different styles in responding to conflict. These styles are usually a combination of individual personality, training and past experience.
Different responses bring with them not only implications for the specific conflict but also for the project.
Effectively managed conflicts can help identify previously undetected problems and attitudes. They can also help clarify uncertainties and improve overall cooperation.
Poorly managed conflicts can conversely create a pool of further unresolved issues, frustration and resentment. This may result in subsequent and often escalated conflicts.
2.1 Passive responses Passive responses occur in the following forms:
- Conflict denial - Conflict avoidance - Capitulation
When parties adopt a passive response to conflict, their needs or the needs of others inevitably go unmet.
Denial of the existence of conflict (when unresolved issue do in fact exist) also inevitably leads to increased tension. This can result in concealed hostility and the cultivation of a false sense of security.
In these circumstances, issues of real importance to everyone involved are seldom adequately addressed, often resulting in frustration and a gradual withdrawal of cooperation.
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A desire to maintain the peace or to avoid ‘rocking the boat’ at all costs can also have undesirable long term consequences.
Failure to adequately confront and deal with problems can result in the creation of ‘no go’ areas and encourage shallow commitment to project goals.
Capitulation to the demands and threats of other project participants also often brings with it an incorrect perception that a conflict has been resolved when in fact it has only been unwillingly suppressed.
2.2 Active responses
Active responses to conflict can take several forms. These include:
- Distributive bargaining - Compromise
- Integrative bargaining
Active responses are normally either aggressive or creative in nature.
Aggressive responses include attempts to dominate others (particularly perceived weaker parties). This can occur when unreasonable demands are made or ‘one sided solutions’ are imposed on others.
The undesired consequences of domination can often be the stifling of future initiative, reduced creativity and the creation of an environment where poor future decisions are allowed to go unchallenged.
Many managers in the construction industry pride themselves on being ‘hard nosed’ and capable of ‘driving a hard bargain’. As a result their responses to conflict are usually characterised by distributive bargaining. This response is usually accompanied by the use of threats, manipulation, the cultivation of power bases and the defence of adopted positions.
An obsession with ‘winning’ by one side often only results in the opposing party withdrawing cooperation and setting about defending its adopted position.
This is hardly the environment in which workable solutions are easily identified.
Other managers in the industry subscribe to the view that compromise is the best response as it normally ensures that the needs of all parties are at least
The disadvantage of always adopting this response is that an environment can be created in which parties regularly ‘over inflate’ initial demands.
Significant time and resources can be wasted in arriving at solutions which are at best only partially acceptable to the parties.
2.2.2 Creative responses
In sharp contrast to the other active responses, creative responses are those that are usually characterised by integrative bargaining.
In this process both parties are encouraged to cooperate in joint problem solving. The emphasis is on identifying creative and workable solutions which can satisfy the needs and dispel the fears of the parties involved.
This response contrasts sharply with the other aggressive responses where maximum effort is usually directed towards persuading or forcing some of the parties to modify their adopted positions.
Instead of directing resources and effort towards the defence of positions, the parties concentrate on developing a wide range of possible solutions (i.e lateral thinking).
If both parties can be satisfied that their needs can eventually be met, it is far more likely that they will be prepared to modify their adopted positions.
Even if it eventually becomes clear that the needs of all parties cannot be fully met, a cooperative climate will have been established. In this environment the probability of achieving a satisfactory resolution to the conflict will have been greatly increased.
Adopting an appropriate response
The adoption of an appropriate response is crucial if the project manager wishes to effectively resolve a conflict with the minimum disruption to the relationships or the project.
Most major conflicts develop from relatively insignificant issues which were not identified and/or correctly responded to when they first occurred.
For this reason passive responses such as denial, avoidance or premature capitulation should be avoided and actively discouraged by project managers.
Similarly aggressive responses such as domination and distributive bargaining should be discouraged wherever they could be detrimental to relationships or the project.
Informal resolution processes such as negotiation and/or mediation should preferably be the resolution processes initially adopted. Where possible these processes should be encouraged as a mechanism for integrative bargaining rather than a search for compromise solutions.
Providing they are constructively used, significant areas of common agreement can usually be identified. This can have the effect of defusing much of the hostility and tension that has accumulated.
If areas of the conflict remain that cannot be resolved through further negotiation, these can often be settled if the parties will agree to abide by the findings of a mutually agreed independent expert.
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There is little point in undertaking protracted negotiations in situations where large power imbalances exist or some of the parties obviously have no desire or interest in resolving the conflict.
In such cases formalised processes such as arbitration or even litigation may eventually be required to settle conflict issues.
It should however be appreciated that settlement of a conflict in this manner is not usually synonymous with conflict resolution and often results in the total destruction of any longer term working relationship.
The ability to effectively identify and respond to conflict is a crucial requirement for successful project management.
Ultimate success or failure in achieving project goals can often depend on a project manager’s ability to identify the causes and to respond appropriately.
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De Bono, E. (1982), Conflicts, a better way to resolve them, Harrap, London.
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Zikmann, R (1990), Conflict Management in the Commercial Environment, University of New South Wales Report.