Digital Leadership & Soft Skills

How to resolve a conflict between teams on a project

Published by Pavel Nakonechnyy on (updated: ) in Leadership and Soft Skills.
How to resolve a conflict between teams on a project

Projects typically involve multiple parties coming together to form a temporary project organization that manages project execution. Let’s imagine a situation where two teams forming the project team experience friction in practice. Thus, the question is: how can project partners manage the integration of work ethics, practices, and processes to produce the most effective and efficient outcomes?

We’ll review this issue using a hypothetical situation. Let’s imagine two teams working with the same IT system. One is a small pizza-sized team managing and delivering rather large and complex projects with multiple stakeholders. The other one consists of more than 20 people and executes projects managed by a single requestor. Both teams use Waterfall. The first team documents projects in Word documents and collects multiple approvals via mail. The second one documents work with requests in Sharepoint lists.

Suddenly, these teams have to work on a project together. How do you organize the workflow for both teams to meet their processes & procedures, controls, and usual ways of work?

Here are two widely cited definitions that highlight different root causes of conflict:

Conflict… A struggle over values and claims to scarce status, power, and resources, a struggle in which opponents aim to neutralize, injure, or eliminate rivals.

Conflict means a perceived divergence of interest or a belief that parties’ current aspirations cannot be achieved simultaneously.

In an organization, there are many sources of conflicts, such as:

  • Incompatible goals and time horizons;
  • Overlapping authority;
  • Task inter-dependencies;
  • Incompatible evaluation or reward systems;
  • Scarce resources;
  • Status inconsistencies.

Not all conflicts are bad, and not all conflicts are good. Too little conflict or too much conflict causes performance to suffer. Optimum level of conflict leads to effective decisions making and high performance.

Management is duty-bound to resolve conflicts properly for the sake of organizational performance.

Here we have a conflict of interests. To resolve this issue, let’s take a look at widely used conflict resolution strategies and propose steps for each one of them.

1. Avoiding. This method involves simply ignoring that there may be a conflict. People tend to avoid conflict when they don’t want to engage in it. Avoiding requires the party to sever its relationship with the other party.

In our case, avoiding conflict means proceeding through the project lifecycle without creating a new workflow that would unify both teams. You can fulfill both demands of both teams for documentation and approvals, possibly creating some extra paperwork but saving the time and effort you would otherwise spend arguing.

2. Competing. Aggression and competition are the natural state of affairs in the animal kingdom. Competing is an uncooperative, overly assertive method. It’s known as a win-lose strategy. This method is not often identified as bringing satisfactory resolutions, as it doesn’t allow for collaborative problem-solving.

In this case, one of the teams would assert their requirements with the help of stakeholders forcing the other team to submit. It is a way that will hurt relations between the teams and, as a result, poses a substantial risk to the authority of the company’s management.

However, there are several reasons why competing is necessary:

  • When a quick decision is necessary;
  • When the outcome is the most important thing;
  • When you are certain you are right;
  • When safety is at issue;
  • When unpopular actions must be taken such as cutting costs or enforcing rules;
  • When change is needed.

So, I’d say you’d want to enforce a win-lose decision if, for example, one of the teams is seriously lagging due to cumbersome and outdated processes.

3. Accommodating. This strategy, also known as smoothing, involves one party acquiescing, giving the opposing party exactly what it needs to resolve the problem. This method allows you to resolve a problem in the short term while working toward a long-term solution.

In our case, the accommodating strategy would be either the smaller team putting up with the bigger one’s demands based on the team size or the bigger team submitting to the smaller one based on the team’s experience with complex projects.

4. Compromising. This strategy, also known as reconciling, seeks a mutual agreement to settle a dispute. It’s known as a lose-lose strategy since both parties willingly forfeit some of their needs in the interest of reaching an agreement. This can be a quick way to resolve a conflict without it becoming a bigger issue. Compromise can also be used as a temporary method to avoid conflict until the parties involved can implement a more permanent solution.

For our particular project, a compromise can be that the bigger team goes with Word documents instead of Sharepoint requests and the smaller one doesn’t try to take control of the project instead following Requestor’s guidance.

5. Collaborating. Collaboration is defined as “a recursive process where people or organizations work together in an intersection of common goals by sharing knowledge, learning, and building consensus”. Collaboration is known as a win-win strategy. For example, a salesperson and client may work together to negotiate contract terms until both parties find it agreeable. Collaboration requires a diversity of thought, problem-solving, and working together.

In environments filled with ambiguity and conflict, participants must navigate through their differing work practices. Some elements that enhance collaboration are trust, leadership, culture, and power.

In our case, a collaborative solution would be a long-term rework of both teams’ processes to take the best from existing practices and unify the workflows of both teams.

All listed methods could backfire on a real project depending on the circumstances. However, all of the strategies except collaboration will work only in short-term to medium-term perspectives:

  • With avoidance the matter will someday become too pressuring and require immediate resolution;
  • With competition or accommodation, the losing team will be left with anger and resentment, resulting in lower productivity and higher turnover;
  • With compromise, no one wins.

Conflict resolution aims to get to the root causes of a conflict and not merely to treat its episodic or symptomatic manifestation. Only cooperation and change can lead to a long-term contract between the parties.

References

  1. Obasan Kehinde, A. “Impact of conflict management on corporate productivity: An evaluative study.” Australian Journal of Business and Management Research 1.5 (2011): 44-49.
  2. Smits, Karen, and Robert A. Brownlow. “Collaboration and crisis in mega projects: A study in cross corporate culture conflict and its resolution.” Independent Journal of Management & Production 8.2 (2017): 395-415.
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