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The Causes of Conflict On Project Teams

Causes of Conflict on Project Teams

Projects can be a hotbed of conflict. From the difficult stakeholder who wants to undermine the project’s success to a disagreement about a feature of a deliverable, project work lends itself to workplace conflict situations.

And project managers contribute hugely to that because we go out and look for it. We challenge leaders, we talk about risk and what might go wrong and we call people out on poor performance through project monitoring and control.

You could say we go looking for trouble.

Let’s look at where you get conflict during the project life cycle and who is involved. I’ve also given you some examples of what drives those difficult situations. Then you can be better prepared for the challenges when they come (because they will!).

Concept Phase

First up, the Concept or Initiation Phase. This is at the start of the project while you are working out exactly what is going to happen. There’s a risk of conflict between:

  • The sponsor and users
    About requirements or cost
    Around agreeing the problem and the solution
  • The sponsor and the project manager
    Around the requirements and how to get there
  • The sponsor and portfolio management
    About business case approval.

In all of these examples you are going to be able to think up your own situations where conflict might arise based on what you see on your own projects. These are just ideas from my own experience.

Definition Phase

In this phase the project is being fully scoped and planned. There’s a chance that you’ll see conflict between:

  • The project manager and team leaders
    Due to a difference of opinion about planning
    Around roles and responsibilities
    Around assigning risk ownership to people who don’t believe they are accountable for it
  • The project manager and sponsor
    Because once the detailed planning is done there may be a need to review scope.
  • The project manager and suppliers
    Around commercial agreements.

Development Phase

Genius banner adThis is where the bulk of the work is done and it’s here that you’ll see the most possibility for conflict. Watch out for sparks between:

  • The project manager and sponsor
    Due to changes to scope and at any key decision making point, for example, risk response plans
  • The project manager and team
    Around resource or task allocation
  • The project manager and team leaders
    Around resource or task allocation
  • The project manager and functional managers
    Around resource or task allocation (see a pattern?)
  • The project manager and users
    As a result of quality control and checking.

In this phase you really want to deal with conflict quickly because your project schedule can start to unravel if you let it go on for too long.

Handover and Close Phase

You’ve made it to the end of the project and now you’re handing over to business as usual teams and closing the project down. What could go wrong here? You’re at risk of conflict between:

  • The project manager and the users or sponsor
    At the point of handover of deliverables
  • The project manager and the operational team
    As they might not want to receive the handover or take responsibility.

Tidy up any last conflict situations before you walk away from a project. You don’t want to leave anyone with a sense that something is unfinished and it will be better for you too, knowing that you’ve done the best job you can to sort out the loose ends.

What Causes Conflict on Project Teams

So why do you get all this conflict on project teams? I have mentioned some causes of conflict above, but in 2012 I did some research into this at an event. It wasn’t incredibly scientific, but I asked the people who came to my presentation what caused conflict on their project teams.

The answers, as you would expect, were a mixed bag but a couple of points stood out clearly.

Most conflict has its roots in the relationships between team members. The team accounts for over a quarter of all conflict causes. Some of the examples people gave included:

  • Lack of clarity about roles
  • Personality clashes
  • Ego
  • Lack of respect
  • Blame

Take those out, and you’ve hugely reduced the likelihood of conflict on your project team.

Project Management Conflict Causes in Project Management

Lack of strategic direction and leadership was another biggie, with 14% reporting that was a cause of conflict on their projects. Miscommunication and misunderstandings in the team came in at 12%, followed by budget issues and responses to change both taking 9% of the responses.

The ‘Other’ segment represents nearly 30% of responses and here there were a multitude of themes including:

  • Aggressive timescales
  • Lack of benefits
  • Lack of knowledge
  • No project management method or structure to underpin success
  • Confused requirements
  • The customer’s expectations.

Managing Conflict on Project Teams

What can you do about conflict on project teams? Whole books have been written about the subject (this one is my favourite).

Here are 5 ways to manage team conflicts and get everybody back to work. What causes conflict on your projects and who is involved? Let us know in the comments below.

I’d like to thank the team at Genius Project for sponsoring this article. Genius Project is a fully-featured project management software tool that includes everything you need to support defining, developing and delivering your work successfully with collaboration features to engage your team at every step of the way.

Project management conflicts

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin FAPM is a professional project manager and award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.
Elizabeth lives in the UK with her family. She uses her organisation and project management skills at home, and also to help other bloggers at Totally Organised Blogging.


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