5th Edition PMBOK® Guide—Chapter 9: Conflict Resolution


In human resources management, one of the tools and techniques listed for process 9.4 Manage Project Team is that of Conflict Resolution.  The purpose of this post is to discuss the five categories of conflict resolution, according to the PMBOK® Guide, and discuss what PMI has to say about them.

1.  Five Categories of Conflict Resolution

The following chart shows each method of conflict resolution, and what it means in terms of group dynamics.  Note that these methods have alternate names, which it is necessary to know if you are preparing for the PMP or CAPM exam.

  Method Explanation Group Dynamics
1. Withdraw/

Avoid

Postponing the issue to be better prepared or to be resolved by others Neutral/Neutral
2. Smooth/

Accommodate

Emphasizing areas of agreement; conceding one’s position to the needs of others Lose/Win
3. Compromise/

Reconcile

Searching for solutions that bring partial satisfaction to all parties Lose/Lose
4. Force/

Direct

Pushing one’s viewpoint at the expense of others Win/Lose
5. Collaborate/

Problem Solve

Incorporating multiple viewpoints and insights from different perspectives Win/Win

2.  Discussion of Conflict Resolution methods

Although the PMBOK® Guide says they are not given any particular order, because “each one has its place or use”, I think the last method of collaborating and problem solving is the one that PMI would generally prefer, and the force/direct the one that PMI would generally NOT prefer.  However, you can understand a situation such as an emergency where a manager must make a decision in a hurry and the others must acquiesce to it simply because there is simply no time to discuss the problem at leisure as a group.

Also, withdraw/avoid could be the smartest strategy if a) there is not enough information to resolve the conflict, or b) the group does not have the authority to resolve the conflict.  In those cases, tabling the issue temporarily until such time that additional information can be obtained, or in the latter case, escalating the conflict to a group that does have authority to handle it, might be better than trying to thrash out the solution prematurely.

Compromise sounds nice, but in reality, it means that both sides have to give up something, and it may work in the short term, but generate hostility that may surface later on in the project.  Not as much hostility, of course, as when a manager tells them what to do without their input (force/direct), but nonetheless it is best to frame the debate in terms that are non-zero-sum, that is, where if one party wins, the other party automatically sees itself has having lost.  The win-win scenario is best both in terms of getting to a solution that has buy-in from all sides, but it also generates good will that will last throughout the project.

Smooth/accommodate is when one person voluntarily gives up their position in order that the group arrive at a solution.  The key word is voluntarily, because if they are forced to give up their position, then it really just the old force/direct method in disguise.  Here’s an analogy I use to explain this method.  When I’m driving in traffic, I often see somebody who is playing a zero-sum game, for whom the object is to get ahead of, at all costs, whether you actually have the right-of-way or not.  If I have the right-of-way, and I detect that the person is being an aggressive driver, then I will slow down and let the person take “pole position” because in reality, I am not playing the same game as the other driver.  I am playing the game where the object is not to get ahead of the driver next to me, but to keep the traffic flowing smoothly.  Today this may require me to sacrifice the position that is ”rightfully” mine; the next day however, the driver next to me may wave me ahead in a gesture of courtesy.  It’s all good—because it contributes to the flow of traffic, whereas playing the traffic game like outtakes of the movie Fast and Furious can land one in the hospital—or worse!

NOTE:   Collaborating and problem solving were considered separate methods in the 4th Edition of the PMBOK Guide; the 5th edition has combined them.  Also, the method of problem solving used to have a second name of confronting 
but I think the term was dropped because the idea that you should be confronting the problem and not the other personalities on the team.   So the new edition of the Guide has this framed in terms of collaborating, which makes sense not just from the practical point of view (focusing on the problem), but also on how you get there, by working together with the others on the team.

3.  Conclusion

Knowing the different methods of conflict resolution will help you be a good project manager; knowing the right situation to use these different methods of conflict resolution is the key to becoming a great one.

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