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Different Conflict Management Styles: Which Works Best When?

written by: Rupen Sharma, PMP • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 2/6/2011

“Do you really expect me to complete this work by noon tomorrow?” Sounds like a conflict is brewing! With so many conflict management styles, which one is the best to use? Let’s find out.

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    Dangerous Weather Ahead?

    Conflicts in project teams can arise from a litany of sources, such as personality clashes, deadline pressures, and differences of 1 opinions. With so many sources of conflict, it’s not surprising if you haven’t heard of a project team that hasn’t had any conflicts! Since conflicts are a fairly common occurrence in project teams, conflict management skills are in demand. After reading this article, you’ll know when to apply each one of the different conflict management styles.

    Pre-requisite: To better understand the conflict management styles discussed in this article, read the Workplace Conflict Resolution Techniques for Project Managers article.

    Image Credit: SXC

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    Types of Conflict Management Styles

    There are several conflict management styles that you can use when in a conflict or while facilitating a solution to a conflict. These styles are:

    • Problem-Solving/Collaborative: Enables you to achieve a win-win solution. However, it requires a high-degree of collaboration and time.
    • Compromise: Leads to a solution by making each of the conflicting parties give a little. This is also known as a lose-lose solution.
    • Forcing/Competitive: Uses authority to address a conflict. This is a win-lose solution.
    • Smoothing/Accomodating: Uses down-playing techniques to arrive at the solution.
    • Withdrawal: Means avoiding the conflict altogether.

    The situation dictates the appropriate use of each style. For example, if you are in a meeting in which the client is demanding a couple of new features for free, you might not want to use the Forcing or Withdrawal conflict management styles. Problem-solving may be a better approach to resolving the conflict. It’ll enable the client to understand your view point and give you an opportunity to understand theirs. Similarly, Forcing is not ideal during an Employee Coaching Session.

    The next section describes a conflicting discussion held between two project team members. We’ll keep referring to this discussion to explain the conflict management styles.

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    A Workplace Conflict Situation

    To understand how to apply the conflict management styles, read the following discussion. It involves two project members, Susan andCOnflict Conversation  Ranen. Susan is a graphic designer while and Ranen is the project manager.

    Susan: Do you really expect me to complete this work by noon tomorrow?

    Ranen: Look Susan, it’s not like I have a choice. We didn’t do it right in the first place and now the client is demanding the changes ASAP!

    Susan: Why can’t you put your foot down and tell them it can’t be done in this time frame! It’ll take a week.

    Ranen: Calm down Susan. It’s not a matter of putting my foot down. We didn’t do it correctly in the first place. And, anyhow…weren’t you responsible for that?

    Susan: …ah, so now you’re putting the blame on me.

    Ranen: The facts are in black and white. One of your modules has the defect, yet again! It should have been caught before sending it to the client.

    Susan: The schedules you create are tight and sometimes impossible to meet…and I have other modules to look after too.

    As you can see, this discussion has turned into an argument. Each person is simply defending his or her interests without looking for a solution. Let’s see how Ranen could apply different conflict management styles here and hopefully reach a solution.

    Image Credit: SXC

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    Withdrawal Conflict Management Styles

    If Ranen applies the Withdrawal conflict management style, the work would not be done. Withdrawal means avoiding the situation. In this Withdrawal Conflict case, as Ranen needs to resubmit the deliverable to a client, he can’t avoid the situation. However, if the issue was minor, such as a decision on the venue of a team lunch discussion, Ranen might choose to avoid the conflict by simply agreeing with Susan’s preference. Withdrawal only makes sense if the issue is microscopically minor or when conflicting parties need to cool down.

    Image Credit: SXC

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    Smoothing/Accomodating Conflict Management Styles

    The smoothing technique is also known as the accommodating conflict resolution technique. This is one of the conflict resolution techniques in which one of the parties Accomodating Conflict Management Style accommodates the other party. If Ranen applies this style, Ranen would need to set the deliverable date back by a week, assuming the client is willing. The benefit of this approach would be that Susan would be less stressed and pressured. On the other hand, the client may not appreciate the setback and Ranen would be in the midst of yet another conflict!

    This style is not useful if the stakes are high and the issues are of key importance. For example, suppose there is a million dollar decision to be made, the accommodating or forcing conflict management style is not useful at coming to the most appropriate solution. For such a decision, use decisions trees as shown in the Using a Decision Trees Example in Project Risk Management to Calculate Expected Monetary Value article.

    Image Credit: SXC

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    Continue on to the next page as we investigate other ways to resolve the conflict.

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    Conflict Resolution Techniques and Conflict Management Styles: How and When To Use Them!This is Part 2 of our article on conflict management styles. In Part 1 of this article, the Withdrawal or Avoiding Conflict Resolution technique was discussed. Here, the other four conflict resolution techniques are discussed. The conflict resolution techniques discussed are Accommodating, Compromise, Collaboration, and Forcing. Each one of the conflict resolution techniques is explained with tips. By the end of this article, you will be in a better position to apply the conflict resolution techniques in your workplace or even personal relationships.
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    Forcing Conflict Management Styles

    By using the Forcing conflict resolution technique, Ranen would use his formal authority as a project manager and ensure Susan gets Forcing Conflict Management Style the work done. If this style was used, the conversation would probably be something like:

    Susan: Do you really expect me to complete this work by noon tomorrow?

    Ranen: Just get it done. We can discuss this after you complete the work. Now, get cracking.

    This dictator attitude is useful when quick decisions need to be made. However, in this case, Susan may not look up to Ranen as a leader or would probably carry negative energy from the conversation. Therefore, though Ranen can use this conflict resolution technique, he’d have to perform some damage control at a later date. In addition, as a general rule, when such issues around quality arise, you should conduct a root causal analysis, such as the Fishbone Analysis.

    In addition, if the structure of the organization is functional, Susan will not report into Ranen. Therefore, Ranen would not have formal authority and hence would not be able to use this conflict management style. In a functional organizational structure, the project manager does not have too much authority. Read more about this in the Project Success Through Optimized Project Management Environments article.

    Image Credit: SXC

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    Compromise Conflict Management Styles

    In this style, both parties don’t get what they want. If Ranen uses this conflict management style, the conversation would probably be Conflict Balance like:

    Susan: Do you really expect me to complete this work by noon tomorrow?

    Ranen: Look Susan, it’s not like I have a choice. We didn’t do it right in the first place and now the client is demanding the changes ASAP!

    Susan: Why can’t you put your foot down and tell them it can’t be done in this time frame! It’ll take a week.

    Ranen (after analyzing the critical path): Can you do it in three days?

    Susan: It’ll be tight, but I think I can pull it off.

    As you can see, neither Ranen nor Susan got what they wanted! Sadly neither did the client! In this conflict management style, all parties tend to lose. As a project manager, Ranen would now have to negotiate with the client and hope for the best. He could get the client to compromise or use the collaborative conflict resolution technique.

    Image Credit: SXC

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    Problem-Solving/Collaborative Conflict Management Styles

    This approach requires both parties to sit down with all the facts and arrive at the solution. It involves exploring the conflict beyond Collaboration surface levels. For example, when Susan says, “Why can’t you put your foot down and tell them it can’t be done in this time frame! It’ll take a week,” it seems deep down Susan believes Ranen will agree to anything that the client wants, even at the expense of the team. It is such feelings that are discussed in a collaborative conflict resolution techniques.

    Similarly, when Ranen says, “The facts are in black and white. One of your modules has the defect, yet again! It should have been caught before sending it to the client.”, Ranen is probably thinking it's always Susan’s modules that have issues. This assumption could be based on facts or a response to a feeling that he has.

    By discussing their feelings and the facts, a greater degree of commitment can be reached. As you might be able to tell, this is one of the more time consuming conflict management styles. However, the higher degree of collaboration helps in getting to a mutually acceptable solution, without any negativity. As a project manager, this approach fosters trust and will help you influence your team members. If possible, use the collaborative conflict resolution techniques the most as it’ll make you into a better leader. Ranen should also use Best Practices to Produce Realistic Software Project Estimation.

    Image Credit: SXC