Dealing With Resistance And Conflict

Resistance and conflict are a natural part of change (Davidson 2002). In this section, we will look at the nature of resistance and conflict and several approaches for dealing with these two issues. Keep in mind that the concept of conflict presented in this section can be applied to conflicts within the project team as well as external conflicts brought about by the change effort.


Resistance should be anticipated from the outset of the project. Rumors and gossip will add fuel to the fire, and the change effort can easily run out of steam if those affected by the change begin to resist. Resistance can be either overt, in the form of memos, meetings, etc., or covert, in the form of sabotage, foot dragging, politicking, etc. Once the change is compromised, management and the project team will lose credibility, and the organization may become resistant to all future changes.

Resistance can arise for many valid reasons. For example, someone may resist an information system because the response time is too slow or because it does not provide the features or functionality that were originally specified as part of the requirements. On the other hand, resistance due to cultural or behavioral reasons is harder to rationalize, but still can keep a project from reaching its intended goal. People may resist change even though they understand that the change will be beneficial (Davidson 2002). For example:

• Some people perceive the change as requiring more time and energy than they are willing to invest.

• Sometimes people feel that that a change will mean giving up something that is familiar, comfortable, and predictable.

• People may be annoyed with the disruption caused by the change, even if they know that it will be beneficial in the long run.

• People may believe that the change is being imposed on them externally, and their egos will not tolerate being told what to do.

• In addition, people may resist because of the way the decision to change was announced or because it was forced upon them.

Resistance is human nature and a natural part of any change process. Understanding what an individual or group perceives as a loss is the first step to dealing with resistance effectively. Because the project team and sponsor are the agents of change, it is easy to see those who resist as overreacting or not being logical. As the proponents of change, the project team and sponsor have had the luxury of knowing about the change early and, therefore, have had the time to become used to it. The rest of the organization, however, may learn about the change much later and, therefore, may not be at the same place for digesting the change. Subsequently, it is important that the project team and sponsor listen to what the rest of the organization is saying. Instead of arguing and trying to reason, it is better to allow people to vent their anger and frustration. Again, having defined a boundary of what is and what is not part of the change can help deal with stressful conflict situations. Keep in mind that empathizing or sympathizing with an individual is not the same as agreeing with them.


Closely associated with resistance is the concept of conflict. Conflicts arise when people perceive that their interests and values are challenged or not being met. Conflict management focuses on preventing, managing, or resolving conflicts. Therefore, it is important to identify potential conflicts as early as possible so that the conflict can be addressed. Although conflict can be positive and help form new ideas and establish commitment, negative conflict left unresolved can lead to damaged relationships, mistrust, unresolved issues, continued stress, dysfunctional behavior, and low productivity and morale (Davidson 2002). As Verma (1998) suggests:

Although conflict is one of the things most of us dislike intensely, it is inevitable. Most often when we try to avoid conflict, it will nevertheless seek us out. Some people wrongly hope that conflict will go away if it is ignored. In fact, conflict ignored is more likely to get worse, which can significantly reduce project performance. The best way to reduce conflict is to confront it. (367)


According to David Foote, resistance to change can be one of the "nastiest, most debilitating workplace cancers." It is difficult to understand why even successful companies fail to carry out well-conceived solutions to problems, discourage innovative and creative ideas, lose valued employees, or watch their successes from the past evaporate. Often the reason is resistance to change. Foote provides several success factors based on the experiences of companies that have managed resistance well.

• Manage the transition, not the change—Resistance is more deeply rooted in the transition rather than the change itself. Transition is more psychological in nature, whereas change is more situational. Transitions are more internally felt and focus on end ings. Therefore, it is important to think through who will have to let go of what.

• Fear is real when pursuing change—When fear fuels resistance, it is important to determine who is losing what, anticipate overreaction, acknowledge the losses, and give something back. It is important to look for signs of grieving and allow people to vent their emotions. In addition, treat the past with respect (symbolically and literally), and let people take a piece of the past with them.

• Keep change teams small—Empirical evidence sug gests that small, empowered teams comprised of six to eight people have the greatest impact on change initiatives. Smaller teams are better at following the rules and improvising creative solutions when faced with obstacles.

Anticipate and embrace failure—Progress toward the project goal counts. But, learning can be difficult, and relapses are a normal part of the change process. Use metrics—Metrics are important for measuring progress and for rewarding performance being made toward the change objective. Be in agreement—An organization's leaders must be in agreement so that a clear, consistent message is being sent throughout the organization. This message should focus on the compelling reasons for the change. Dissension can fuel resistance. Invite broad participation—For a change initiative to succeed, at least 15 percent of the people who are affected by the change must be actively engaged and committed to the change. Over-educate—Management and the change agents should manage expectations and resistance through effective and timely communication. Communication should focus on the mission, vision, philosophy, process, choices, and details about the impending change.

It takes time—Change does not happen overnight. Often organizations take years to prepare, practice, and build their capabilities to manage change.

SOURCE: Adapted from David Foote, The Futility of Resistance (to Change), Computer-world, January 15, 2001, http://www,10801 ,56246,00.html.

There are three different views of conflict that have evolved from the late nineteenth century to today (Verma 1998). These views are (1) the traditional view (mid-nineteenth century to mid-1940s), (2) the contemporary view (mid-1940s to 1970s), and (3) the interactionist view (1970s to present).

• Traditional View—The traditional view considers conflict in a negative light and feels conflict should be avoided. Conflict, according to this view, leads to poor performance, aggression, and devastation if left to escalate. Therefore, it is important to manage conflict by suppressing it before it occurs or eliminating it as soon as possible. Harmony can be achieved through authoritarian means, but the root causes of the conflict may not be adequately addressed.

• Contemporary View—The contemporary view, on the other hand, suggests that conflict is inevitable and natural. Depending on how conflict is han dled, conflict can be either positive or negative. Positive conflict among people can stimulate ideas and creativity; however, negative conflict can have damaging effects if left unresolved. Therefore, positive conflict should be encouraged, while keeping negative conflict in check.

• Interactionist View—Today, the interactionist view holds that conflict is an important and necessary ingredient for performance. Although the contem porary view accepts conflict, the interactionist view embraces it because teams can become stagnant and complacent if too harmonious or tranquil (Verma 1998). Subsequently, the project manager should occasionally stir the pot in order to encourage conflict to an appropriate level so that people engage in positive conflict. This may, however, be a fine line to walk for many project managers. Although someone who plays the role of the devil's advocate can be effective in many situations, people may become annoyed when it is used in every situation or used ineffectively.

To better understand the nature of conflict, Verma (1998) points out that conflict within projects can fit one, or a combination, of three categories:

1. Conflicts associated with the goals, objectives, or specifications of the project.

2. Conflicts associated with the administration, management structures, or underlying philosophies of the project.

3. Conflicts associated with the interpersonal relationships among people based on work ethics, styles, egos, or personalities.

According to a study conducted by Thomas and Schmidt (Thomas and Schmidt 1976), a typical middle or top-level manager spends about 20 percent of her or his time dealing with conflict! For the project manager and project team, the seeds of resistance can easily lead to negative conflicts. Subsequently, it is important to understand how to deal with conflict. Blake and Mouton (Blake and Mouton 1964) and Verma (1998) describe five approaches for dealing with conflict. A project team member or project manager should choose an appropriate approach for managing conflict based on the situation.

• Avoidance—Avoiding conflict focuses on retreating, withdrawing or ignor ing conflict. Sometimes, a cooling-off period may be a wise choice, espe cially when emotions and tempers are high. Avoidance may be appropriate when you can't win, the stakes are low, or gaining time is important. However, it may not be useful when the immediate, successful resolution of an issue is required.

• Accommodation—Accommodation, or smoothing, is an approach for appeasing the various parties in conflict. This approach may be useful when trying to reach an overall goal when the goal is more important than the personal interests of the parties involved. Smoothing may also be effective when dealing with an issue that has low risk and low return or when in a no-win situation. Because accommodation tends to work only in the short run, conflict may reappear in another form later on.

• Forcing—When using this approach, a person uses his or her dominant authority to resolve the conflict. This approach often results in a one-sided or win-lose situation in which one party gains at the other's expense. This approach may be effective when no common ground exists, when you are sure you are right, when an emergency situation exists, or when time is of the essence. Forcing resolution may, however, cause the conflict to rede velop later because people dislike having a decision or someone else's views imposed upon them.

• Compromise—Compromise includes aspects of both forcing and accommo dation; it gives up more than forcing and less than accommodation. Compromise is essentially bargaining—one person or group gives up some thing in exchange for gaining something else. In this case, no party actually wins and none actually loses, so that some satisfaction is gained from reso lution of the conflict. This approach may be useful when attempting to resolve complex problems that must be settled in a short time and when the risks and rewards are moderately high. Unfortunately, important aspects of a project may be compromised as a means of achieving short-term results—for example, quality standards may be compromised in order to meet the project's schedule.

• Collaboration—When the risks and benefits are high, collaboration may be the best approach for dealing with conflict. This approach requires con fronting and attempting to solve the problem by incorporating different ideas, viewpoints, and perspectives. The focus of collaboration is learning from others and gaining commitment, trust, respect, and confidence from the various parties involved (Verma 1998). Collaboration takes time and requires a sincere desire to work out a mutually acceptable solution. In addition, it requires a willingness to engage in a good-faith problem-solving process that facilitates open and honest communication.

According to Verma (1998), each conflict situation is unique and the choice of an approach to resolve conflict depends on:

• Type of conflict and its relative importance to the project.

• Time pressure to resolve the conflict.

• Position of power or authority of the parties involved.

• Whether the emphasis is on maintaining the goals or objectives of the proj ect or maintaining relationships.

Polarity Management

Often the project manager or project team is faced with a conflict situation that appears to have no solution. For example, the agents of change (i.e., the project team) may be faced with conflict and resistance from the targets of change (i.e., the users). Often one side finds itself advocating a change (e.g., a new system), while the other side is trying to maintain the status quo. The problem is that both sides end up in a polarity where each side can only see the upsides or advantages of their pole and the downsides or disadvantages of the other. For many, this is a difficult dilemma that can create even more resistance and conflict.

In his book, Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems, Barry Johnson (Johnson 1996), advocates a technique that can help people see the whole picture and then structure the process of change to bring about an effective method for collaboration.

According to Johnson, the problem is that we often frame a problem or dilemma as something that can be solved by choosing one side over another. Crusaders are those who want to change the status quo and are the supporters of change. Tradition Bearers are those at the opposite end of the pole and wish to preserve the best of the past and present. Using a tool called polarity mapping, we can see the upsides and

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