Resolving interdepartmental conflict: Tips for project managers

by Moira Alexander
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Interdepartmental conflict has always been an issue for businesses. However, project managers are uniquely positioned to help smooth conflict as it arises, but all conflicts are not created equal.

The causes of interdepartmental conflict are numerous, but how much can a PM do to resolve the issues? Let’s take a look at some of the more common conflicts today’s project managers might be forced to deal with and what, if any, actions they can take to improve the situation.

Leadership conflict that trickles down

If interdepartmental conflict is rooted at the top of an organization, it’s virtually impossible for a project manager to help undo this. It’s likely this type of conflict is so deep-rooted that it permeates throughout multiple facets of the business and likely trickles down into the relationships between various departments.

What makes things worse is it’s more often than not, it’s embedded in the foundation of the overall culture. That said, a PM has a responsibility to discuss the risks to the project with company leaders. The difficulty a PM may run into is how receptive or resistant business leaders may be to discussing their role in any existing issues. This can be a fine line to walk for any project manager. Tread carefully, but don’t avoid discussing it with business leaders. The impact on the success of a project is far too great.

Communication breakdowns and misunderstandings

There isn’t a workplace that doesn’t suffer from employee or leadership communication breakdowns and misunderstandings on a daily basis. As long as people are involved, this will happen, and it’s fairly normal. It’s important for a project manager to be able to identify the cause of any misunderstandings and work to resolve things as quickly as possible.

What may seem like something small can quickly get out of hand unless a project manager can help to ensure all involved parties are fully satisfied with the solution and prepared to move forward without additional resentment. Dealing with this particular type of conflict is par for the course and well within the role of a project leader. The faster these types of conflicts are resolved, the faster and smoother the transition from one project step to another.

Lack of accountability and the blame game

Conflict around missed expectations and requirements often become a source of contention between departments and result in finger-pointing, the blame game, and create a lack of accountability. This is a touchy area for a PM to try to resolve. A good project leader should work toward isolating the root cause of a problem and resolving any issues surrounding it, without the need to affix blame. The key here is to help all those involved to see what went wrong and learn from the experience without isolating or shaming anyone.

The tug of war over limited resources

This type of conflict is likely due to surface throughout all projects and shouldn’t be new to any PM. Resources are typically limited in most companies, and this only creates a tug-of-war because of conflicting goals and perceived priorities. A project manager plays a key role in identifying and scheduling all priorities and associated resources to meet those priorities. This again is an area well within a project manager’s wheelhouse. Good project managers strive to stay on top of this type of conflict or, better yet, get ahead of it whenever possible to avoid additional fall out later.

Egos and personal issues

How you interact with others and behave plays a key role in how well a project is executed. Conflict caused by ego or self-focus is the responsibility of the individual(s) involved, yet a PM also has a responsibility in helping team members, stakeholders, and even sponsors to temper their personal bias and aspirations and separate it from project activities.

At any given time, one or even all of these can cause conflict within a project. While the onus for identifying all of these possible triggers or finding a resolution shouldn’t be placed too heavily on a project manager, a PM has a responsibility to help all parties remain focused on project goals. A PM is uniquely qualified and positioned to facilitate conflict resolution. It’s important for project managers to also know when it’s time to ask for additional support and assistance in resolving conflict from time to time.

And let’s not forget that sometimes even the smallest personal difference can get blown out of proportion and negatively impact the outcome of business activities. Even though most people have good intentions, sometimes things can get out of hand when it comes to personal bias of any sort. This particular issue is a little bit easier for a PM to sort through simply because the lines between personal and professional can more easily be delineated when talking with the individuals involved.

Competition and career aspirations

Similar to personal differences mentioned earlier, multiple individuals may have career aspirations that create steep competition and further cause conflict that overshadows even day-to-day business activities. If that’s not enough, this conflict can derail project activities and goals altogether. This may be harder for a PM to identify and deal with since it more often than not, it lurks beneath the surface and isn’t always obvious. Regardless of the reason, a project manager has a responsibility to stakeholders to address any problematic behavior and motivations that are of concern and redirect activities and effort back to the project goals.


All content: Copyright 2018 by—IDG Enterprise Inc., 492 Old Connecticut Path, Framingham, MA. 01701.


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