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Episode 389: Conflict Resolution in Project Management (Free)

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Karin Bruennemann
Karin Brünnemann, PMP

Conflict in project management is inevitable. In fact they say that the only way to not have a project management conflict is to have a one-person project. And even then, some people have a tendency to argue with themselves.

Karin Brünnemann (https://www.linkedin.com/in/karinbrunnemann) recently gave a presentation on the topic of Managing Conflict in Projects to the Project Management Institute (PMI)® Slovakia Chapter. And because it was such a success she suggested that we bring it to you as well!

Karin’s presentation and our interview is full of solid advice and best practices you can apply to the conflicts you will inevitably encounter. We will discuss: Definition & Characteristics of Conflict

  • Conflict in the Context of Project Management
  • How to Analyse a Conflict
  • How to Manage Conflict

A big part of the interview is actually focused on that last part -- the actual project management conflict resolution. We are, however, not going to talk about conflict resolution on multicultural projects. That’s reserved for next week.

Presentation Slide Deck

Karin has made her presentation slides available for listeners of The PM Podcast. Download the file here:

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Episode Transcript

Below are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete transcript is available to Premium subscribers only.

Podcast Introduction

Cornelius Fichtner: Hello and welcome to Episode #389. This is the Project Management Podcast™ at www.pm-podcast.com and I’m Cornelius Fichtner.

Conflict in Project Management is inevitable. In fact, they say that the only way to not have a project management conflict is to have a one-person project and even then some people have a tendency to argue with themselves.

Karin Brunnemann recently gave a presentation on the topic of Managing Conflicts to the PMI Slovakia Chapter and because it was such a success, she suggested that we bring it to you as well. If you are a project manager who wants to become PMP or PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP)® certified, then the easiest way to do so is with our sister podcast, the PM PrepCast™ or the Agile PrepCast™ and get your certification training for the exam by watching the in-depth exam prep video training from www.pm-prepcast.com

Karin’s presentation and our interview is full of solid advice and best practices that you can apply to the conflicts you will inevitably encounter. We’ll discuss the definition and characteristics of conflict in the context of Project Management, how to analyze a conflict and of course how to manage a conflict. A big part of the interview is actually focused on that last part, the actual Project Management conflict resolution. We are however not going to talk about conflict resolution on multi-cultural projects—that is reserved for next week.

And now, are you looking at me? Enjoy the interview.

Female Voice: Project Management Podcast Feature Interview. Today with Karin Brunnemann, PMP, Intra-cultural expert.

Cornelius Fichtner: Hello Karin. [Und dir ich wilkommen zurück] The Project Management Podcast™.

Karin Brunnemann: Hi, Cornelius!

Cornelius Fichtner: [laughs] Yes it always confuses people when I start the interview in German or another language. Welcome back, Karin. It’s been quite a while.

Karin Brunnemann: Thank you, Cornelius. I’m happy to be a guest speaker on the PM Podcast once again.

Cornelius Fichtner: Yes. So, we want to talk about conflict in projects and the reason for this is really the new PMI Talent Triangle, right?

Karin Brunnemann: Yes. If you look at the Talent Triangle under the leadership heading, Conflict Management is actually explicitly mentioned as a leadership skill for Project Management. So, this is quite an important topic.

Cornelius Fichtner: Yeah absolutely. Just as an aside for our listeners, because you are listening to this podcast interview, you can claim PDUs for listening to the podcast in the leadership category. Hop over to the website, take a look and we’ll explain how it is done. Also, for our listeners, Karin, what can they expect to learn from the interview right now?

Karin Brunnemann: What we have prepared is based on the definition and characteristics of conflict in the specific context of Project Management and how project managers can analyze and successfully manage conflict.

Cornelius Fichtner: Excellent. Let me begin with the very basic question like I always love to do. What is Conflict?

Karin Brunnemann: Conflict in principle has three basic characteristics. Every conflict has a specific cause that can be rooted in people’s motivation, like they have incompatible goals; they want different things that collide or it can be rooted in shared resources as I think all of the project managers know, we have to sometimes struggle to get finances allocated; we have to struggle to get some people allocated, etc. But it can also come from interdependent activities. For example, if you have one activity that depends on another activity to be finished first and that first activity doesn’t get finished, you can easily come into conflict with the person or the team responsible for that predecessor activity. The second characteristic is that a conflict is not anything static. It has an active element—it is a PROCESS. The third and last basic characteristic is that a conflict involves a minimum of two social actors. Social actors can either be individuals, they can be teams, they can be departments, they can be organizational units, they can also be different organizations. For example, you can have conflict in the project between the company doing the project and the supplier.

Cornelius Fichtner: Understood. And I think the joke goes: there is only one kind of project that does not have conflict and that is when you are the only person on that project and nobody else is participating at all.

Karin Brunnemann: That’s right.

Cornelius Fichtner: Yes. And I can argue with myself so maybe not even that is right. Alright, so they have a cause, they have a course, there are two actors. Where does conflict fit in to the PMBOK Guide? Let’s maybe also talk about that quickly.

Karin Brunnemann: Yes, in the latest edition of the PMBOK Guide, Conflict Management is part of the Managed Project Team Process and there is part of the tools and techniques to manage the project team and the PMBOK has quite some statements to make, also how conflicts should be handled and how they should manage which we will go through during this interview.

Cornelius Fichtner: Alright then, why do we experience more conflict on projects than in business as usual?

Karin Brunnemann: That’s a very good question. I usually ask my audience at this stage: Has anyone ever been on a project without any conflicts? People start laughing.

Cornelius Fichtner: Yeah. Laughter ensues. Exactly.

Karin Brunnemann: Yeah. There is multi-coded three Ps setting projects apart from business as usual when it comes to conflict. The first P lies in the project itself. By definition, a project is unique. It’s something that has never been done before. That causes insecurity, it causes a lot of learning processes that might not go so smoothly, etc. and a project always causes a change and as all of us probably know, a change is not the easiest to implement in a company. People don’t want to let go of what they have, they’re afraid of the new and they get stressed. Another aspect of the project side is the organization itself. Very often we have a matrix organization in the project meaning that a project team member is reporting to two bosses and that in itself can cause conflict. Now the second P is actually People. Because projects are unique, new teams are formed and people don’t know each other, they have not developed trust and not defined the rules of cooperation. Then of course, because the project is unique, there are new tasks. People have to learn how to handle tasks, it’s sometimes not clear what exactly tasks are and there is a lot of insecurity involved on the People side. The third and last P is the Product. Each project produces a unique result that has not been there before. That can be a physical product or a service and this is an unknown and again this adds to stress and if people are stressed and if processes and outcomes are not known, conflict is much more likely than if we complete in our routine task every day.

Cornelius Fichtner: So we have Project, People and the Product which are the reason for why we have conflict on projects and before we can really delve into the resolution here, we also have to talk about the categories and the types of conflict. Tell us about the two conflict categories.

Karin Brunnemann: Yes there are two basic categories that are called hot conflict and cold conflict. Now, a hot conflict is usually very visible. People are sometimes shouting at each other or at least arguing. Parties are usually very passionate about their interests and their goals. It can look very, very dramatic. I’ve been in a couple of projects where people have really been shouting and screaming at each other but the good news is that a hot conflict is often looks a lot worse than it really is. On the other hand, a cold conflict is a conflict that is latent and it’s below the surface and such conflict, they are more dangerous in terms that they can—they’re smoldering, they can last very long and the parties involved they can actually get very disappointed, demotivated even cynical and for third party—for onlookers, these conflicts are not always recognizable. If you’re a project manager and you have a team with a cold, smoldering conflict, the danger is that as a project manager, you don’t recognize that there is a conflict therefore you will not resolve it and the conflict can go on for a long time and it can also, at some stage, become hot when people say,”OK, we’ve had enough” and then it really explodes like a volcano.

Cornelius Fichtner: Yeah. Next to the hot and cold conflicts we also have the destructive and constructive conflicts. Tell us about those.

Karin Brunnemann: Yes. This is a very, very important distinction. In a destructive conflict, this conflict usually can lead to a slowdown or standstill of the project work. They can involve personal attacks, not physical attacks but verbal attacks, hopefully only verbal attacks between the conflict parties and they actually destruct the team and the individuals working on the project from achieving the goal of completing the task. Destructive conflicts tend to be very emotional because of that personal involvement. Constructive conflict on the other hand usually needs a lot deeper understanding and root cause identification. It leads to high-quality decisions and also commitment of the parties involved. We see a lot of win-win outcomes of constructive conflict and in the end, it motivates the team rather than demotivating it.

Cornelius Fichtner: So, quick question for you: I’m oftentimes “passionate” on our projects and we have adopted an Agile methodology here internally and all of our conflicts, they are constructive. We try to build and do something and create something new but I’m really passionate. I can get loud and I argue and so—is that a hot or a cold conflict?

Karin Brunnemann: Yeah. It’s a hot conflict but the way you described it, it’s still very constructive.

Cornelius Fichtner: Right.

Karin Brunnemann: You bring your ideas on the table. You really want to find a solution that’s why you’re so passionate.

Cornelius Fichtner: Yes. So one does not exclude the other then? You can have a cold, destructive conflict, you can have a cold constructive conflict—so these are sort of a little bit combinable?

Above are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete transcript is available to Premium subscribers only. Please subscribe to our Premium Podcast to receive a PDF transcript.

Tags: PDUs: Technical Project Management, Project Manager Soft Skills, Conflict Management

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