By Jeannette Terry

Conflicts are inevitable on projects. Differences of opinion, competing priorities, and pressure from tight deadlines and long work hours can produce conflict. Some types of conflict – especially issues with contract terms or escalating costs – can impact the project’s ability to be successful.

Learn more about the Cost of Unresolved Conflict >

Fortunately, most project conflicts are less intense than these and considerably easier to resolve. Understanding what can trigger conflict is the first step in preventing it or resolving it if you find yourself in the middle of a conflict.

A recent analysis of TerconPartner’s database consisting of 8,000 individual project team member responses from over 225 projects worldwide revealed the following three most frequently mentioned causes of project conflict. Not surprisingly, these top three were all related to communication.

Trigger # 1 – Too much reliance on email.

Emails are easy to send and help document what was communicated. However, when the content of that message is complex, unfamiliar to the reader or unclear, it’s better for both parties to talk on the phone or face-to-face to prevent any misunderstandings or unintended consequences. If a project manager uses email to cut corners in communicating to his team because he or she is short on time, there will be potential negative repercussions.

What you can do to fix it:

  1. Be intentional about which communication mode you choose for different types of messages. Recognize that email and other written forms of communication are notorious for causing misinterpretations about the tone and intent of the message.
  2. Avoid using email when dealing with complex tasks that could spark a lot of questions from the reader.
  3. Avoid using email to deliver a message that the other person may not be receptive to hearing (such as saying “no” to an important request or giving critical feedback) or any topic that could cause a defensive response. Even if you would prefer to avoid the conversation, remember that the repercussions of avoiding a two-way conversation might be worse than a few uncomfortable minutes face-to-face or on the phone.

Trigger # 2 – Lengthy delays in receiving requested information from another individual or team.

When project team members ask for information they need to make a decision, meet a deadline, or take an action, they usually need a timely response. Therefore, when responses to RFI’s are delayed or specific requests are ignored, the resulting frustration frequently leads to conflict. And sometimes these types of delays not only have a negative impact on the requestor’s team, but also can create “bad blood” between the requestor’s team and the responder’s team that lingers on.

What you can do to fix it:

  1. Determine why the delay is occurring. This can go a long way toward avoiding delays in the future. The most common reasons why responses are delayed in the project environment include the following:
    • Your request didn’t go to the correct person or team. Especially when timeframes are short, you should confirm – by telephone or in person – that your request will be directed to the correct individual.
    • Your request was not treated as a high priority by the receiver. If this is the case, you must make the case for why your request should become a priority for the receiver. Develop your persuasive argument by: 1.) Summarizing exactly what information is needed and why, 2.) Describing the potential consequences if you don’t receive it in time, and 3.) Identifying who you may have to go to next if your contact can’t provide what’s needed. Then it’s time to put on the charm! (This process is most effective via a face-to-face conversation or telephone call, if possible.)
  2. Hold brief update meetings with teams or individuals that impact your work or vice-versa. In Tercon’s experience, approximately 90% of the frustration caused by not having timely access to needed information can be eliminated by scheduling brief, periodic check-in meetings to share information and resolve issues on a Just-in-Time basis.

Trigger # 3 – Problems with the Decision-Making Process

An analysis of our Project Team Alignment Survey™ database found that there are usually three types of decision-making concerns raised. These are the most likely to trigger conflicts within the commenter’s team, across their project, or between disciplines or functions.

  1. Issues with how decisions are made. When making a decision, one of the following comes into play:
    • Lots of decisions are made under time pressure without the right people or expertise in the room. Typically, this means that the decision will have to be re-cycled which will take more of everyone’s time.
    • Leaders make decisions without consideration for the impact on the people who have to implement them. Team members believe they should be able to give input before some decision are
    • Many decisions are ad hoc and not based on the reality of what people have to deal with on an everyday basis.
    • Sometimes an important decision gets delayed because no one on the team knows who has the authority to make it.
  2. Issues with how decisions are communicated. If communication on a decision is slow, incomplete or nonexistent, team members are more likely to speculate about why the decision was made or begin to lose trust in leadership.

What you can do to fix it:

  1. When making a decision, take the time to include the right people and consider all potential ramifications
  2. From the beginning, clarify roles and responsibilities so that if a decision needs to be made, there is someone in the meeting who can make it.
  3. Decisions about new processes should be quickly and formally cascaded to the team instead of letting people hear about them by word of mouth without proper explanation.
  4. Be sure to communicate how a decision will impact other teams and/or individuals soon after it’s made.
  5. Give team members more information about why a certain decision was made and how it fits in with the overall project or team Team members care about “the big picture” as well as their smaller piece of the work that will make the project successful.
  6. Ask for feedback from your team before making a big decision. If they give suggestions you do not implement, be sure to close the loop and communicate why you did not use.

Some conflicts can actually be beneficial, such as when issues get clarified or alternative solutions to a problem are found. That said, most people want to avoid or prevent conflict when possible.

Having a better understanding of conflict triggers can empower you to prevent them- or at least reduce the negative impact of many workplace conflicts. For more on constructive conflict management see Ten Tips for Reducing Conflict on Your Team and The High Cost of Unresolved Conflict.

About the author

Jeannette Terry

Under Terry’s leadership, TerconPartners has grown from a regionally focused firm in America to an international human capital consultancy. Terry has extensive experience supporting major capital projects, where she has collaborated with project executives and teams to achieve performance breakthroughs and to dramatically improve organizational capability. She has coached leaders and developed multi-cultural and multi-discipline teams on five continents and in several off-shore facilities.

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