Managing Conflict

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Temporary management situations produce conflicts. This is a natural occurrence resulting from the differences in the organizational behavior of individuals, the differences in the way that functional and project managers view the work required, and the lack of time necessary for project managers and functional personnel to establish ideal working relationships.

Regardless of how well planning is developed, project managers must be willing to operate in an environment that is characterized by constant and rapid change. This turbulent environment can be the result of changes in the scope of work, a shifting of key project and functional personnel due to new priorities, and other unforeseen developments. The success or failure of a project manager is quite often measured by the ability to deal with change.

In contrast to the functional manager who works in a more standardized and predictable environment, the project manager must live with constant change. In his effort to integrate various disciplines across functional lines, he must learn to cope with the pressures of the changing work environment. He has to foster a climate that promotes the ability of his personnel to adapt to this continuously changing work environment. Demanding compliance to rigid rules, principles, and techniques is often counter-productive. In such situations, an environment conducive to effective project management is missing and the project leader too often suffers the same fate as heart-transplant patients—rejection!2

There is no one method that will suffice for managing all conflicts in temporary management situations because:

• There exist several types of conflicts.

• Each conflict can assume a different relative intensity over the life cycle of the project.

The detrimental aspects of these conflicts can be minimized if the project manager can anticipate their occurrence and understand their composition. The prepared manager can then resort to one of several conflict resolution modes in order to more effectively manage the disagreements that can occur.3

Thamhain and Wilemon surveyed 150 project managers on conflict management. Their research tried to determine the type and magnitude of the particular type of conflict that is most common at specific life-cycle stages, regardless of the particular nature of the project. For the purpose of their paper the authors stated the following definitions:

Conflict is defined as the behavior of an individual, a group, or an organization which impedes or restricts (at least temporarily) another party from attaining its desired goals. Although conflict may impede the attainment of one's goals, the consequences may be beneficial if they produce new information which, in turn, enhances the decision-making process. By contrast, conflict becomes dysfunctional if it results in poor project decisionmaking, lengthy delays over issues which do not importantly affect the outcome of the project, or a disintegration of the team's efforts.4

2 H. S. Dugan, H. J. Thamhain, and D. L. Wilemon, "Managing Change in Project Management," Proceedings of the Ninth Annual International Seminar/Symposium on Project Management, Chicago, October 22-26, 1977, pp. 178-188.

3 The remainder of Section 7.3 is devoted to Hans J. Thamhain and David L. Wilemon, "Conflict Management in Project Life Cycles," Sloan Management Review, Summer 1975, pp. 31-50. Reprinted by permission of publisher. Copyright © 1975 by Sloan Management Review Association; all rights reserved.

4 H. J. Thamhain and D. L. Wilemon, "Conflict Management in Project-Oriented Work Environments,"

Proceedings of the Sixth International Meeting of the Project Management Institute, Washington, D.C., September

The study presented in their paper was part of an ongong and integrated research effort on conflict in the project-oriented work environment.4-8

Project managers frequently indicate that one of the requirements for effective performance is the ability to effectively manage various conflicts and disagreements that invariably arise in task accomplishment. While several research studies have reported on the general nature of conflict in project management, few studies have been devoted to the cause and management of conflict in specific project life-cycle stages. If project managers are aware of some of the major causes of disagreements in the various project life-cycle phases, there is a greater likelihood that the detrimental aspects of these potential conflict situations can be avoided or minimized.

This study first investigates the mean intensity of seven potential conflict determinants frequently thought to be prime causes of conflict in project management. Next, the intensity of each conflict determinant is viewed from the perspective of individual project life-cycle stages. An examination is then made of various conflict-handling modes used by project managers, which leads to a number of suggestions for minimizing the detrimental effects of conflict over the project life cycle.

Research Design

Approximately 150 managers from a variety of technology-oriented companies were asked to participate in this comprehensive research project. A usable sample of 100 project managers was eventually selected for this study.

A questionnaire was used as the principal data collection instrument. In addition, discussions were held with a number of project managers on the subject under investigation to supplement the questionnaire data and the resulting conclusions. This process proved helpful in formulating a number of recommendations for minimizing detrimental conflicts.

The development of the questionnaire relied on several pilot studies. It was designed to measure values on three variables: (1) the average intensity of seven potential conflict determinants over the entire project life cycle; (2) the intensity of each of the seven conflict sources in the four project life-cycle phases; and (3) the conflict resolution modes used by project managers.

4 H. J. Thamhain and D. L. Wilemon, ''Conflict Management in Project-Oriented Work Environments," Proceedings of the Sixth International Meeting of the Project Management Institute, Washington, D.C., September 18-21, 1974.

5 "Diagnosing Conflict Determinants in Project Management," IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, Vol. 22, 1975, pp. 35-44.

6 D. L. Wilemon and J. P. Cicero, "The Project Manager—Anomalies and Ambiguities," Academy of Management Journal, Fall 1970, pp. 269-282.

7 D. L. Wilemon, "Project Management Conflict: A View from Apollo," Proceedings of the Third Annual Symposium of the Project Management Institute, Houston, Texas, October 1971.

8 D. L. Wilemon, "Project Management and Its Conflicts: A View from Apollo," Chemical Technology, Vol. 2, No. 9, 1972, pp. 527-534.

The average conflict intensity perceived by the project managers was measured for various conflict sources and for various phases of the project life cycle. Project managers were asked to rank the intensity of conflict they experienced for each of seven potential conflict sources on a standard four-point scale. The seven potential sources are:

• Conflict over project priorities. The views of project participants often differ over the sequence of activities and tasks that should be undertaken to achieve successful project completion. Conflict over priorities may occur not only between the project team and other support groups but also within the project team.

• Conflict over administrative procedures. A number of managerial and administrative-oriented conflicts may develop over how the project will be managed; i.e., the definition of the project manager's reporting relationships, definition of responsibilities, interface relationships, project scope, operational requirements, plan of execution, negotiated work agreements with other groups, and procedures for administrative support.

• Conflict over technical opinions and performance trade-offs. In technology-oriented projects, disagreements may arise over technical issues, performance specifications, technical trade-offs, and the means to achieve performance.

• Conflict over manpower resources. Conflicts may arise around the staffing of the project team with personnel from other functional and staff support areas or from the desire to use another department's personnel for project support even though the personnel remain under the authority of their functional or staff superiors.

• Conflict over cost. Frequently, conflict may develop over cost estimates from support areas regarding various project work breakdown packages. For example, the funds allocated by a project manager to a functional support group might be perceived as insufficient for the support requested.

• Conflict over schedules. Disagreements may develop around the timing, sequencing, and scheduling of project-related tasks.

• Personality conflict. Disagreements may tend to center on interpersonal differences rather than on "technical" issues. Conflicts often are "ego-centered."

Intensity of Specific Conflict Sources by Project Life-Cycle Stage

The conflict intensity experienced by project managers for each source over the four life-cycle stages was measured on a special grid. The x-axis of the grid identifies four standard life-cycle phases: project formation, project buildup, main program phase, and phaseout. The y-axis delineates the seven potential sources of conflict. The respondents were asked to indicate on a standard four-point scale the intensity of the conflict they experienced for each of the seven potential sources of conflict within each of the four project life-cycle stages.

A number of research studies indicate that managers approach and resolve conflicts by utilizing various conflict resolution modes. Blake and Mouton,9 for example, have delineated five modes for handling conflicts:

• Withdrawal. Retreating or withdrawing from an actual or potential disagreement.

• Smoothing. De-emphasizing or avoiding areas of difference and emphasizing areas of agreement.

• Compromising. Bargaining and searching for solutions that bring some degree of satisfaction to the parties in a dispute. Characterized by a "give-and-take" attitude.

• Forcing. Exerting one's viewpoint at the potential expense of another. Often characterized by competitiveness and a win-lose situation.

• Confrontation. Facing the conflict directly, which involves a problem-solving approach whereby affected parties work through their disagreements.10

Aphorisms or statements of folk wisdom were used as surrogates for each conflict resolution model.11 The project managers were asked to rank the accuracy of each proverb in terms of how accurately it reflected the actual way in which they handled disagreements in the project environment. Fifteen proverbs were selected to match the five conflict-handling modes identified by Blake and Mouton.12,13 This analysis provides an insight into the perceived conflict-handling mode of the project managers.

Analysis of Results

The results of the study are presented in three parts.

The mean intensity experienced for each of the potential conflict sources over the entire life of projects is presented in Figure 7-1. As indicated, relative to other situations, disagreements over schedules result in the most intense conflict over the

9 R. R. Blake and J. S. Mouton, The Managerial Grid (Houston: Gulf Publishing, 1964).

10 For a fuller description of these definitions, see R. J. Burke, "Methods of Resolving Interpersonal Conflict," Personal Administration, July-August 1969, pp. 48-55. Also see H. J. Thamhain and D. L. Wilemon, "Conflict Management in Project-Oriented Work Environments," Proceedings of the Sixth International Meeting of the Project Management Institute, Washington, D.C., September 18-21, 1974.

11 Specifically, the measurements rely on the research of P. R. Lawrence and J. W. Lorsch, "New Management Job: The Integrator," Harvard Business Review, November-December 1967, pp. 142-152.

12 See note 9.

13 These proverbs have been used in other research of a similar nature to avoid the potential bias that might be introduced otherwise by the use of social science jargon. For further details, see R. J. Burke, "Methods of Managing Superior-Subordinate Conflict," Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1970, pp. 124-135.

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