Playbook

How to Resolve Project Conflicts and Avoid Hours of Miscommunication

Conflict isn’t always bad—but it does require management. Here’s how to support productive conflict and head off miscommunication before it turns into battles.

Read time: 8 min

Who this is for and why it matters

It’s no secret that conflict and miscommunication can be huge obstacles to speedy, effective, and successful projects. And yet it’s easy to underestimate the scope of the problem—and how easily it can take your teams off course.

In fact, according to a survey by The Economist, 44% of employees have experienced project delays or even failures because of miscommunication, 31% report low morale related to miscommunication, 25% have missed their performance goals, and 18% have lost sales (to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars).

In our experience, these miscommunications–and their resulting conflict–often stem from:

  • Insufficient planning or documentation at the start
  • A mismatch in communication styles or tools
  • Failures in active listening, empathy, or collaborative culture

So, how do we fix the problem?


Build a proactive planning framework to minimize and resolve conflict

Experts say establishing goals and expectations (on project outcomes, responsibilities, etc.) early is a good first step.

But it takes more than simple early planning. You need to build a proactive planning framework that helps avoid conflict from the start.

Under this simple—yet customizable—framewrok, you'll better understand communication styles, personalities, and how teams' familiarity with tools and processes differentiate from one to another.

Various teams—especially in a larger organization—rarely work off the same processes and workflows, which can cause a lot of tension from the get-go.

Instead of trying to "rid" conflict across the team, department, or company, advanced planning will actually embrace conflict to some degree without the unnecessary (and expensive) hours of back-and-forth.

How to Resolve Project Conflicts TL;DR Diagram

Set up the project framework to embrace some conflict

First, it’s important to acknowledge that conflict isn’t necessarily a sign that something is wrong. But your project or communication plan needs to be prepared for how conflicts will be resolved at every step.

This is especially true in creative teams where many people contribute ideas, expertise, and solutions. Disagreements are inevitable, and some of those disagreements will be strongly felt.

Archana Shetty, VP of IT Projects at QNB Group, explains that project leaders often make the mistake of thinking that reduced conflict directly relates to better outcomes. Simply minimizing project tensions doesn't equate to successful team collaboration.

Archana Shetty Quote Design

Echoing a similar sentiment, Project Management Champion Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez says that project leads need to actively address and resolve conflicts to strengthen team dynamics, boost collaboration, and ultimately enhance project outcomes.

This is a huge mindset shift for many project managers but an important one for your conflict resolution efforts. If we see conflict as a sign that something’s wrong, the default reaction is typically frustration or other negative responses.

Research tells us that frustration often hinders problem-solving skills and not only on the frustrating task but also on subsequent work. In the same vein, studies show that happiness and positivity are associated with better problem-solving.

By reframing conflict as a sign of a healthy, creative ecosystem and an opportunity to improve communication processes, we remove the negative stigma and set ourselves up for effective resolution.

Thoroughly establish responsibilities and goals—early and often

A substantial amount of workplace conflict comes from differing expectations or understandings of the overall goals and outcomes the business has prioritized. This means a substantial amount of conflict can be avoided before it begins (or resolved quickly) if your planning processes are robust, well-communicated, and well-documented.

If everyone is clear on responsibilities, for example, disagreements about who should do what is less likely down the line. And when those disagreements do come up, resolving them becomes simpler if there’s a source-of-truth document that answers the question for us.

Strategy and operating issues Breakdown Graphic

As for just how much time to spend on planning, McKinsey recommends at least as much time as you spend on operational issues.

In other words: the better you plan, the less conflict later. In tech, just as in life.

Prepare for the team’s communication styles and preferences

For the conflicts that can’t be avoided with planning and documentation, facilitating effective resolution means understanding and being ready to tackle:

  • Communication styles: Consider the ways different teams communicate in the org (i.e. marketing team vs. product team)
  • Tech preferences: If one team primarily communicates via screen recordings and chat while another prefers in-person meetings and doesn't regularly check—teams get understandably muddled
  • Generational differences: Studies note that different generations prefer different tools and communication styles, which means understanding the generational makeup of your teams makes a difference

Understanding how teams prefer to communicate—and setting standards for those communication methods can help cut conflict off before it starts. If everyone is expected to respond to emails within 48 hours or check Slack at least once daily (or whatever platform and cadence works for your teams), it’s easier to know how and where to communicate and how quickly to expect a response.

Documenting this in advance will be a game-changer. If you need help, create a comprehensive communications plan with this Team Communication and Meeting Matrix Template.

ClickUp team communication and meeting matrix template

By optimizing information sharing, you'll boost team productivity with a structured approach to assign responsibilities, streamline communication, and schedule meetings efficiently.

Have your team's back

Sometimes no matter how well you’ve planned, communicated, put outcomes first, and set out to understand the mix of people on your teams, conflicts will still arise—and still get heated.

This is why project managers need to take a leaf from some psychology books and display strong empathy, use active listening skills, and desire not just project success but the individual success of every team member.

Some teams use strategies like GitHub’s encouragement of non-work-related connections between employees, which can have big impacts. Sid Sijbrandij, co-founder and CEO of GitLab Inc., explained the importance of early communication with team members in an interview with McKinsey.

SID SIJBRANDIJ CO-FOUNDER & CEO OF GITLAB INC Quote Graphic


Extend the benefit of the doubt

There’s a reason you hired every person on your team. Presumably because they are smart, capable, creative, and/or are bringing essential expertise to the table.

This means that in every conflict and miscommunication, it only makes sense to treat them as the smart, capable, experienced people you hire. If there are two ways to interpret a situation, start with the most charitable.

Assume they have a reason for their concerns—even if they haven’t communicated that reason well yet. Invite them to join you in resolving the problem collaboratively.

As any therapist will tell you, in general, the more “seen” a person feels, the more they can sense that you respect their expertise and contribution, and the more willing they’ll be to work toward a solution.

Tough conversations are what can move projects forward, but remember that being fostering and prioritizing collaboration will always help teams succeed.

Better communication = effective conflict management

From setting and communicating expectations from the jump to extending the benefit of the doubt in your ongoing communication efforts, conflict management is built on a foundation of good communication practices.

By using this planning and communication framework, you'll be prepared for all conflicts before they occur between teams.

You could even share this project conflict resolution plan with the greater team to truly uphold a transparent and collaborative space.

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