How To Master Conflict Resolution As A Project Manager

Conflict is inevitable, but not unsolvable. Get tips on how to be a master mediator in every project.

Graphic illustrating resource article

Conflict resolution is an essential skill set for project managers, but no one likes to talk about it. In job descriptions, we often sugarcoat it with innocuous terms like “stakeholder management”, “build trust” or “fearless communicator.”

But, like so many other elements of a project manager’s role, the devil is in the details. Project managers may make things look easy by preventing disasters from striking, but there’s a lot that goes into resolving a conflict before it gets out of hand.

In this article, we’ll explain why conflicts arise in project management and offer some actionable strategies for conflict resolution, including how technology can help you.

Why does conflict arise in project management?

In my 15+ years as a project manager, I’ve seen conflicts arise for lots of different reasons. Here are types of conflicts with possible reasons why they happen:

  • Strategic conflicts. Stakeholders may have different approaches on how they want to solve a problem. Or, they may not agree there is a problem, or a need for a project, in the first place.
  • Tactical conflicts. You may usually encounter this in the course of project planning and execution. Stakeholders may be averse to change and/or struggle to adapt.
  • Resource allocation. You can sometimes see conflicts arise because of how work is allocated to team members. For example, if a key team member becomes overbooked, you may need to negotiate for that person’s time to keep them on your project.
  • Interpersonal conflicts. People argue, but interpersonal conflicts can have other causes as well. More on that a little later.

A real-life example

The first project I managed involved sharing data between two different IT systems. One was a facilities management system that stored data related to the organization’s real estate portfolio. The other was a project planning system that contained information for scoping new construction or major rehabilitation projects.

The goal of the project was to use facilities data to inform new construction bids. Because efforts to complete this project had stalled in the past, system owners were reluctant to do the work required to share data between the two systems. They didn’t know much about each other’s requirements, and, ultimately, they didn’t trust each other.

So what did I do?

My role as a project manager was to get to know the players. In most cases, stakeholders simply want the opportunity to air their grievances. I presented myself as a neutral third party committed to understanding needs and pain points. I then facilitated conversations between the parties summarizing areas of agreement and outstanding questions for further discussion.

It sounds simple, but it took weeks of planning to arrive at a workable solution. And although we got to the point of civil discourse, it took months before stakeholders were able to relax and crack jokes in each other’s presence.

Even though it was unpleasant initially, the shouting matches helped us uncover the root causes of the conflict. Healthy discourse also helped us arrive at better solutions.

I’d rather manage a contentious project than one that appears to have no conflicts—if a project seems too good to be true, I’d be concerned about the potential conflicts brewing beneath the surface.

Six strategies for conflict resolution in project management

Conflict is a natural part of project execution and may even help to foster innovative ideas that improve the business. But, project managers also have a responsibility to rein in conflicts before they get to the point of threatening project outcomes.

Here are six strategies for conflict resolution throughout the project lifecycle:

1. Identify the skill sets required for project execution and choose qualified team members to fill the desired roles

This is something you need to do early on in the project initiation and project planning phases. For each project role, clearly define the expected responsibilities to differentiate who is doing what.

I once worked on a project where the client requested two mid- to senior-level business analysts to formulate strategy, conduct ad hoc research, and handle day-to-day operations. There wasn’t enough work for two team members with that level of expertise, leading to constant bickering over who got to work on what tasks.

What I did was mediate the conflict between the team members by helping them define roles and responsibilities in the short term and an exit strategy for one of the team members in the long term.

2. Conduct a proper project kickoff

An effective kickoff meeting is super useful to align the team on strategic objectives, expected requirements, and proposed timeline and level of effort. Ensuring that everyone understands who is doing what and why will save loads of time later on.

Here’s an example: On an IT systems integration project that had started and stopped a few times over its history, leaders had assumed that stakeholders understood the project goals and therefore skipped the kickoff meeting. When I sat down with the team, I realized we weren’t aligned on project objectives.

So, I convened a kickoff meeting as if the project were starting for the first time. The blank slate and deliberately neutral atmosphere helped set the tone that: 1) neither party had the upper hand and 2) this time was going to be different.

3. Get to know your stakeholders

This includes their wants, needs, and pain points, to help you diagnose the root causes of project problems. Facilitate conversations between stakeholders to help them understand each other’s perspectives.

Transparency is key–I’d rather have two people get into an argument than suppress a conflict that leads to issues later on.

Real-life example? On a project to build out an analytics platform, two of the executives involved resisted one-on-one meetings. I chalked this up to busy schedules and a preference for asynchronous communication.

Rather than putting up with the status quo, I should have investigated further to understand their hesitancy to meet. Failure to get to know these stakeholders and understand the nature of their relationship later manifested in a refusal to integrate with business processes adopted platform-wide.

The project might have had a better outcome if I had taken the time to expose and address the latent conflict between these two executives.

➡️ Learn 11 strategies for effective stakeholder management

4. Continuously communicate with your team members to confirm planned resource allocation

And, of course, ensure to course correct as necessary.

For example, I once worked with a data scientist with expertise in a particular transportation system as part of an international development project. This person was integral to the project because no one else knew the system. With such a niche skill set, I suspected that this person wouldn’t be available for long.

So, I identified a junior engineer to cross-train with this data scientist and get up to speed on the system. This person was committed to the project for its duration. Sure enough, when the expert got pulled into a related project, the junior engineer was able to step up and take over without compromising the project timeline.

➡️ Learn more strategies to handle schedule conflict


Pro tip

In Float's resource planning tool, you can tag people by skills sets and get a bird's eye view of availability in real-time. This helps you allocate work to the right people and plan capacity effectively.

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5. Identify a decision maker to break any potential deadlocks

While a big part of a project manager’s job involves leading through influence, sometimes you need to bring in the heavy to advance the project.

In one situation from my experience, product, engineering, and design leaders had different ideas of what should be part of the product roadmap for the next quarter. Each executive built their own roadmap, creating silos across teams, duplicating effort, and generating inefficiencies in reporting.

In these cases, you need to identify a final decision maker to determine which items belong on the quarterly roadmap. This way, product, engineering, and design leaders can plan resources accordingly in service of agreed-upon business goals.

6. Get to the root cause of interpersonal conflicts

Many of the examples we’ve discussed involve resolving conflicts on schedule, workload, or other project-related factors. But, what’s the project manager’s role in managing interpersonal conflicts? The short (and annoying) answer: it depends.

The long answer: in many cases, when two people do not appear to get along, the conflict may not be about personality, but rather stem from a specific root cause. Project managers can focus on addressing the root cause to see if the conflict dissipates.

In the example we mentioned above, where two experienced team members were squabbling over work, the root cause was not that the two didn’t get along. It was about a skills mismatch. Resolving the skills mismatch removed the conflict. But, in the short term, I took on the role of mediating their interpersonal dynamics to produce a long-term solution.

It’s worthwhile to get in the mix on these types of problems, as long as you recognize that your role is short-term. Getting too caught up in the drama is ultimately frustrating because project managers can’t control how people behave. Rather than focusing on the conflict itself, focus on how it is affecting the project and approach resolution from that perspective.

How technology can help prevent (some) conflicts

While technology cannot prevent every type of project conflict, it can be a way to minimize the risk of certain types of conflicts from cropping up in the first place.

Resource management software, like Float, can help with project planning by visualizing project timelines, desired skill sets, the expected level of effort, and resource allocation across team members.

Float's sample project plan view
Float's example project plan view where project work is allocated to team members. You can also see the total hours scheduled for each person. This view can help you align stakeholders and plan properly from the start.

A technology like Float helps project managers foster alignment across stakeholders and provides accountability about who is doing what before a project even starts.

During project execution, you can use Float to avoid scheduling issues, monitor resource allocation, and give visibility to project progress. You can make adjustments in real-time to mitigate any resourcing conflicts that may arise.

This way, you can focus your attention once again on being the “fearless communicator” that you are.



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