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Theory "Conflict Management"

A conflict-free project is an extremely rare phenomenon. Even when rules have been agreed upon and contracts have been signed, conflicts can occur because the different project participants almost always have different expectations of the project. Disagreements about goals and procedures, (non-)execution of work and interpersonal problems can lead to conflicts. Most conflicts significantly affect the project. If they are not addressed and resolved immediately, the conflict resolution process can be lengthy and costly because conflicts affect the work on the project. The causes of conflicts must therefore be known, impending conflicts must be recognized and the team must know how to resolve them.

How to deal with conflicts?

The main concern of all project participants (e.g. in Scrum: Developers, Scrum Master, Product Owner) should always be to prevent conflicts from arising in the first place. This is made possible by stakeholder management, environment analysis and following the rules of the agile framework. In Scrum, it must be ensured that meetings are held and conducted on time. If conflicts have arisen, they must be addressed and resolved as quickly as possible. In principle, the responsibility lies with everyone involved. There are various ways to resolve conflicts:

  1. The participants come to a compromise.

  2. The Scrum Master / Project Manager acts as mediator.

  3. An (external) consultant is called in.

  4. It is escalated to a higher level in the company.

In the next step, the following checklist can further help the mediator to manage the conflict:

  • Have the right conflict partners been identified?
  • Have profiles of the conflict partners been drawn up?
  • Have conflict partners been identified in the organisation chart?
  • Has the conflict been placed in the conflict spiral?
  • Has the 10-point plan for conflict resolution been followed?
  • Has qualified advice been sought (works council, company doctor, company psychologist, mediator, arbitrator, lawyer, line manager, etc.)?
  • Was the conflict directed to the right addressee, forwarded or escalated?

The four-point conflict resolution list below helps you to take a structured approach to dealing with a conflict and to find possible solutions.

  1. Identify the conflict

  2. Address the conflict

  3. Find a solution

  4. Implement the solution

Causes of conflict

Conflicts are basically characterised by the incompatibility of actions, motives or behaviours. Different project team members may have different expectations of the project. Many conflicts arise because of the personality or personal behaviour of the project team members. The causes of conflicts therefore lie either on the

  • the objective level, or
  • the psychosocial level (= emotional level).

It should be kept in mind that many conflicts that appear to be objective have their cause on the psychosocial level.

Conflicts on the objective level

Conflicts that occur on the objective level can be divided into:

1. Goal-related conflicts:

If different project participants pursue different goals in the same project, there arises a goal-related conflict. For example, if the Sprint Goal is too broad the Developers may have different views on what exactly they need to work towards.

2. Evaluation-related conflicts:

These conflicts arise in a project when the participants evaluate facts differently because they perceive and process information in different ways. One aspect of project work that often leads to conflict is the outcome of estimates.

3. Distribution conflicts:

These conflicts arise when different project participants compete for the same resources.

Psychosocial conflicts

Psychosocial conflicts usually occur when different personalities and values clash. When a project starts, team members who often do not know each other, have to work together and familiarise themselves with the project. This is rarely conflict-free. If interpersonal problems are exacerbated by the high pressure to succeed, the situation quickly becomes critical.

Conflicts on the psychosocial level are often not recognized as such, but are assumed to be related to the objective level. In the case of psychosocial conflicts, it may be necessary to call in an external expert (e.g. coach, psychologist, mediator).

The spiral of conflict

Now that you have learned about the different causes of conflicts, we would like to introduce you to the spiral of conflict: Typically, conflicts do not arise out of nowhere, i.e. before a conflict becomes really bad, something is usually already wrong. Often misunderstandings are at the beginning of a conflict. Confusion and then anger arise from the misunderstanding. Those involved begin to blame each other, they become alienated and resentment arises. A pleasant working atmosphere is no longer possible. Of course, this is only an extreme example, but as soon as conflicts harden, this spiral takes its course - even if it was only a small misunderstanding at the beginning. That is why it is important to resolve a conflict at an early stage. There is a so-called 10-point plan for this.

The 10-point plan

To resolve conflict, the following approach can be taken:

  1. Identify the conflict.
  2. Identify the conflict partners.
  3. Address the conflict.
  4. Analyse the conflict.
  5. Visualise the conflict arguments.
  6. Classify the conflict (level of conflict: emotional or objective?).
  7. Bring the conflict from the emotional to the objective level, if necessary.
  8. Structure the conflict.
  9. Collect, evaluate, select and implement alternative solutions.
  10. Use the conflict to find new ways.

In addition to this process, it is important to take (early) warning signals seriously. The true cause should always be investigated. This is important to resolve the conflict directly where it arose, but also to avoid future conflicts of that cause. Regardless of whether the conflict is objective or emotional, it should always be ensured that the other party of the conflict does not lose face, as this could lead to a conflict on an objective level turning into a conflict on an emotional level..

Preventing conflicts

Even better than resolving conflicts at an early stage is to prevent conflicts. To do this, you need to look behind the scenes instead of focusing on the obvious facts.

The following measures can help you prevent conflicts.

  • Open information policy and transparency towards stakeholders.
  • Involve stakeholders in the Sprint Retrospective or in feedback meetings.
  • Take fears and concerns seriously and encourage team members to talk openly about them.
  • Create a climate of trust.
  • Give and demand regular feedback.

Functions of conflicts

Conflicts are often seen as exclusively destructive. However, this view is too one-sided, because conflicts not only create an unpleasant blocking atmosphere, they also offer opportunities, especially if the conflict occurs at an early stage of the project and the team members are not emotionally involved.

Functions of conflicts can be the following:

  • They indicate that change is necessary.
  • They point out opportunities.
  • They "clear the air" in unpleasant and obstructive situations.
  • They lead to a mature project culture.
  • They promote team spirit.
  • They enable team solutions.
  • They reveal issues and clarify ambiguities.
  • They promote personal development, as people learn from conflict situations.

As a result, innovative approaches to conflict management are often found, which can be applied in the further course of the project or in other projects.