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Can conflict be positive?

Updated: Nov 7, 2021

This blog discusses a recent APM article on this subject. For many conflict is something to be avoided! However with the right approach can it be turned into something positive?

Diversity within a project team can provide many benefits (a topic for a future blog maybe). One such benefit is the variety of thought and opinion driving innovation. However the greater the team diversity the greater the probability of conflicting thoughts and opinions which could upset team cohesion.


A real dilemma for any project manager right?


Many of us find conflict difficult to deal with often to the point of avoidance. However conflict is an inherent part of being human therefore an inherent part of running projects.

It is ok for team members to have conflicting view points or disagreements!

Conflict does not need to be a disruptive factor at all, in fact, if handled correctly, it can produce surprisingly positive outcomes. The alternative behaviour of pushing a disagreement under the carpet or bottling it up can only become destructive in the longer term and mushroom into something much bigger than it needs to be.


So does that mean conflict is a positive thing?


Before we attempt to answer this question we need to understand a little more about conflict.

The APM article introduces a model developed in the 1970s by Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann in which they devised five different conflict styles:

  1. Collaborating - Highly assertive and highly cooperative. You seek a win win situation.

  2. Compromising - Moderately assertive and moderately cooperative. You seek a middle ground.

  3. Competing - Highly assertive but not cooperative. You want to win.

  4. Accommodating - Not assertive but highly cooperative. You give in.

  5. Avoiding - Not assertive and not cooperative. You want to delay.

These were based around two dimensions:

  1. The more assertive you are the more you will assert your will over others.

  2. The more cooperative you are the more you will put other peoples interests before your own.

The more towards competing you are (want to win) the more you are shut off to learning from others and is most likely to result in fractious relationships with colleagues and loss of trust between you and others around you. In such a situation benefits and opportunities will not be maximised. Whereas the more collaborative you are towards the opinions of others the more innovative solutions will become, and with it, greater maximisation of benefits.

The one thing we must do is avoid avoidance, kicking the can down the road to deal with later (maybe). This means facing up to conflict in the team.


But should we shout or listen?


To improve your approach to conflict first reflect on how you have approached situations previously and assess where you are in the Thomas/Kilmann five styles.

In the APM article Madsen suggests that your physiology and psychology are closely linked therefore by understanding how you feel, where in your body you feel tension and if your breathing changes, are signs which can enable you to identify areas to focus on and overcome the psychological barriers to dealing with conflict. For example by slowing down your breathing you are deliberately signalling to yourself that you're safe and that there's nothing to be afraid of. This will naturally calm your body down and enable clearer thoughts creating a place in which you can deal with the situation you are confronted with.

With your body calm and mind clear start asking open questions of the other person such as, what are they looking to achieve? What makes the topic so important to them? How do they propose the issue be resolved? Which risks do they see? What would they do if they were in your shoes?.......

This is not an easy thing to do as you will need to suspend your own agenda for a moment and open up to the wants or needs of the other person. However, if practiced can become a skill and real asset in your project management toolkit and can make the difference between success of failure of the project.


It's when you use a collaborative approach that you will come up with your most creative solutions and turn conflict into something positive.

A discussion based on APM article by Suzanne Madsen, Project Magazine, Issue 308, Autumn 2021, pg 59

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