Expert Commentary

Conflict Resolution in the Construction Setting

Understanding the causes and effects of conflict is fundamental to personal and professional success. The pace of business in general and projects in particular is accelerating, supply chains becoming longer and more complex, relationships more intertwined, and expectations more challenging, which can lead to increased opportunities for conflict.


Construction Safety
April 2012

Essentially, conflict arises when parties consider two or more competing options, responses, or courses of action to satisfy a particular event or situation or when the involved parties perceive a threat to their needs, interests, or concerns. The construction process is rife with uncertainty, and uncertainty creates fertile ground for conflict. One's ability to effectively deal with people, elicit their cooperation, and resolve conflict can be critical to the construction project's success.

In many construction situations, production may trump protection. In other words, safety takes the backseat when production is in jeopardy. This can create a situation where the person who tries to ensure safe operation may be faced with people responsible for production taking risks, which increase the possibility of injuries while performing the work. Conflict has both positive and negative consequences. This could very well have its roots in knowledge as well as situations. Having a good understanding of the other person's basis for their position, their needs, and their past experience may go a long way in finding a means to approach and resolve the issues in an amicable way.

Figure 1: Positive and Negative Consequences of Conflict

Positive and Negative Consequences of Conflict

Construction has a complex supply chain with multiple entities involved. There are contractual relationships between the owner and the architect, the general contractor, and possibly a construction manager. The architect has agreements with a number of consultants, and the contractor has agreements with a large number of subcontractors. There are also a number of other entities involved in the construction process. All the contracting entities have business relationships with a number of vendors and suppliers. There is no contract between the contractor and the designers or between subcontractors, but there is an expectation that these parties will work together to achieve the project's overarching goals and objectives. This can be especially challenging when dealing with safety issues.

One of the key drivers of a construction project is the time element. Everyone involved basically makes a promise to perform in such a way so as to meet the project time requirements. These promises are based on individual organizations making educated guesses as to the ability of their partners and workers, vendors, and suppliers to perform so as to deliver on their promises. Also, situations and conditions beyond the control of all these entities—such as transportation, the weather, and other factors—may come into play. Because of the complex supply chain and the large number of entities involved, there are many opportunities for a disruption of the orderly and planned delivery on promises. This imposes some degree of uncertainty into the process, which increases the potential for conflict.

Due to the possibly large number of people involved in the construction process and their differing organizational goals and objectives, the potential for variation, external factors, changed conditions, and diverse expectations all set the stage for potential miscommunication, misunderstanding, and ultimately conflict. This could very well create a crisis of leadership. So, having a good understanding of how to effectively deal with people and adeptly defuse explosive situations and constantly honing conflict resolution skills can be very helpful in managing performance and the ultimate outcome of the project. There are a number of possible outcomes to any conflict resolution process, and the results are a function of our approach to the situation.

Figure 2: Possible Conflict Outcomes

Possible Conflict Outcomes

More times than not, projects end up with slippage in the schedule for a myriad or reasons. In those cases, there is an effort to recover because, generally, the end date remains firm. Most project timelines are "tight," and one needs to make up for the slippage so as to complete the project by the contract end date. Due to time and other job pressures, a recovery plan is selected and implemented. Though there are a number of approaches to this, a common one is to either increase manpower or go to overtime. This change has inherent risk. But, generally, there is little time spent to explore this carefully. Also, there is pressure to "pick up" production. These conditions may cause workers to cut corners or be exposed to additional risks. So, meeting the challenge of increased activity and the need for greater attention to safety may lead to potential conflict, which has to be resolved in a way that takes both issues into account and reaches a solution that addresses both needs in an effective way.

The Emotional Aspects of Conflict

Emotion is usually an integral part of any conflict and tends to become a barrier to amicable resolution. The effort to resolve a dispute often is thwarted by the emotions related to the conflict. To be able to more effectively resolve conflicts, one has to be aware of the sources and impact of emotion in such situations. It is our emotional reactions to things, people, and events that help form our "positions" about them. Once our positions are formed, we tend to look at them as "truths." This leads to a strong tendency to protect our positions, which, in turn, can block us from actually working toward the desired outcome—conflict resolution. Positions tend to become polarizing and potentially self-reinforcing, creating situations that can sabotage the best efforts to reach agreement.

Understanding some of the underlying aspects of the situation will be useful in how we approach the conflict resolution process. We need to be able to identify whether the issue is a "hot button" to either party—that is, how important the issue is to each. Are there other peripheral issues that may be critical to either side that may influence positions taken? Are there others indirectly influencing the situation? Getting a handle of some of these elements will go a long way in removing such barriers and therefore lubricate the process, resulting in expediting an amicable solution.

The Language of Conflict

The words we use in describing or when dealing with conflict reflects our basic assumptions regarding our opponent, the situation, and ourselves. This sets our approach to the situation as well as shapes our expectations of the process. To assist in creating a situation that will foster resolution, we need to pay attention to the language used. Following are three metaphors.

Conflict Considered as War

This clearly characterizes a "win-lose" approach. This thinking suggests that the other is in the wrong, that their position is unreasonable, and that they are out to take advantage. Emotion takes on a large role in the process and reinforces the "under siege" mentality and willingness to fight to win. It is unfortunate, but some organizations may consider such an approach as competition and reward it. This has powerful implications for internal working relationships as it diminishes trust and cooperation while encouraging infighting. On the whole, this approach tends to be counterproductive to the overall well-being of the organization.

Conflict Considered as Opportunity

This sort of use of language can make a difference in how conflict situations are seen and dealt with. A situation that can have negative implications transforms into a positive and cooperative one. Considering the situation as an opportunity diminishes the possible negative impact of emotion and enhances the amicable resolution of the situation. It also saves time and resources that can be better used by both parties for more constructive endeavors. In such a case, the other person is not cast as an adversary but as someone who can assist us in reaching an agreement. This fosters a working relationship. It also creates a situation in which "win-win" results are possible.

Conflict Considered as a Journey

This sort of thinking opens up a large number of possibilities. It is transformational. It takes a more long-term approach to resolving issues, creating amicable solutions leading to relationship building. In most cases, the people we end up in conflict with are people we have dealings with over long periods of time and in different situations. So, our approach to solving conflict in any one situation takes on a more global context and requires us to look at the "big picture." As a result, our position in one particular situation may take on a whole new meaning and outlook. This sort of approach fosters empathic thinking.

Common Sources of Conflict

Conflict in the workplace leads to dysfunction, which is detrimental to the project's outcome and those involved. Conflicts that are ignored may lead to anger, which can transform a simple problem into one that may become insurmountable later on. Addressing conflict as soon as it arises is the most effective way to avoid future discord. Conflict arises for a number of reasons, and the most common ones are:

  • Poor communication: Poor communication tends to lead to misunderstanding and discord among people who have to work together, as on construction projects. Lack of information, partial information, untimely information, and inaccurate information all can lead to work being done that does not meet expectations and sets the stage for conflict and animosity.
  • Lack of clarity: Project participants may wind up in turf wars when boundaries and expectations are not clearly defined. It is important to clarify content and to ask for confirmation of understanding.
  • Conflicts of interest: Individuals fighting for personal goals may lose sight of project or organizational goals. One tactic may be continually reminding partners and employees how their personal goals and efforts "fit" into the project's strategic goals and outcome expectations.
  • Limited resources: There are many situations on projects when resources are limited and have to be managed effectively. Conflict may arise over the use of equipment, space, material, time, manpower, etc. Such conflicts must be dealt with effectively so as to maintain harmony on-site. Whenever possible, include employees and partners in the resource allocation process. This will provide them with a better understanding of how allocation decisions are made in the best interest of the project.
  • Power struggles: The need to control is at the root of many conflicts on construction projects. Perception plays a key role in this regard. Treating everyone fairly and with respect goes a long way to diminish some of this. But, invariably, power struggles are going to occur and should be addressed appropriately. If necessary, teach employees how to manage relationships on the project. This will go a long way toward reducing conflict and the need for others to get involved.

Conflict Resolution Styles

When dealing with conflict, there are two general approaches: concern for the people or concern for results (or something in-between). This leads to five different approaches that can be taken when trying to resolve the situation. The style taken has something to do with the personalities involved as well. Those who are competitive will tend to gravitate to styles with a greater focus on results rather than a concern for the other person's views and feelings.

Figure 3: Alternative Responses to Conflict

Alternative Responses to Conflict

People who have low self-esteem or do not want to upset the other person will choose avoidance. This approach leads to accepting a default position or delegating controversial decisions to others. Avoidance may also make sense when it is obvious that someone else is in a better position to deal with the problem. It can also be appropriate when victory is impossible or the controversy is trivial. However, in many situations, this is a weak and ineffective approach to take when faced with a conflict.

The accommodating style indicates a willingness to meet the needs of others in the conflict resolution process. The accommodator often knows when to give in to others and can be persuaded to surrender a position to reach an amicable resolution. Accommodation is an appropriate approach when the issues matter more to the other person. It may make sense when peace is more valuable than winning. It can be very useful if you want to be in a position to collect on this "favor" at some future time. There is the possibility that this person may not return the favor later on. Overall, this approach is unlikely to result in the best outcome.

People who prefer the compromising style of negotiation try to find a solution that will at least partially satisfy everyone. This style is a balance between winning and a concern for the other person's needs and wants. For this to work, everyone is expected to give up something. The compromising style is useful when the cost of conflict is higher than the cost of losing ground or face. It can also be useful when both sides have equally strong arguments or when discussions come to a standstill and there is a deadline looming.

The contentious approach is for people who want to win no matter what the consequences are. People who tend to be competitive take a firm stand and know what they want. They usually operate from a position of power. This style can be useful when there is an emergency and a decision needs to be made fast. It can be employed when defending against someone who is trying to take advantage or exploit the situation selfishly. This approach can leave people feeling bruised, unsatisfied, and resentful when employed in situations that are not deemed emergencies.

People who tend toward a collaborative style of negotiating try to understand and meet the needs of all the people involved in the situation. These people can be highly assertive but, unlike the contentious negotiator, they acknowledge everyone's views and take them into consideration. This style is useful when there is a need to bring together a variety of viewpoints to get the best solution. Collaboration is important to create a harmonious approach to dealing with people at a later time.

The use of one of these five approaches will define the resulting relationship between the two sides of the situation going forward as well as the results achieved. Once you have a good understanding of the different negotiating styles, you can use them individually or in combination when it is most appropriate to a given situation. The combined style is known as situational negotiation. This gives you the flexibility to change styles as needed or as the situation dictates. Ideally, you can adopt an approach that meets needs of the situation, resolves the problem, respects people's legitimate interests, and mends damaged working relationships.

Conclusion

If anything is true about conflict, it is that it will occur at some point. No single tool or technique will work for everyone and in all cases. The reason why is that the situations are always going to vary with different people involved combined with the different possible approaches to resolution. Due to this, there really is no one tool, technique, or method that will work universally. The elemental approach is one that will foster resolution, address the issues symbiotically, and combine honesty with empathy, reason with intuition, and emotion with logic, as well as a willingness to align goals with the intent to have them work synergistically. This is also a learning process, and those open to flexibility and willingness to collaborate will gain trust, increase goodwill, build relationships, and solve problems effectively.

Tools and Rules

Conflict resolution steps:

  1. Take an inventory of yourself. What are your strengths and weaknesses? What are your personal needs and objective?
  2. Find or accept that there is a conflict and decide to resolve it.
  3. Have a good understanding to the situation (both sides) and the events that led up to it. Identify the "real" issues underlying the conflict.
  4. Mentally go through the resolution process and visualize the presentation of the information and possible actions and reactions. Go prepared.
  5. Select a neutral place.
  6. Ensure that people who have the authority to make decisions that will lead to resolution are present.
  7. Actively and empathically listen to all points of view and then clarify by restating the other position.
  8. Present your position and justification in neutral language.
  9. Explore and generate alternative ways to reach resolution.
  10. Start with the items that are the easiest to resolve to establish an atmosphere of understanding and cooperation.
  11. Be flexible.
  12. Persevere in difficult situations, be creative, accentuate the positive, take breaks, involve others if needed, work toward an understanding that is satisfactory, and record the resulting agreement.

Resources

Furlong, Gary T. The Conflict Resolution Toolbox: Models and Maps for Analyzing, Diagnosing, and Resolving Conflict. John Wiley and Sons, 2000.

Deutsch, Morton, Peter T. Coleman, and Eric C. Marcus. The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice. 2nd ed. John Wiley and Sons, 2006.

Lipsky, David B. Emerging Systems for Managing Workplace Conflict: Lessons from American Corporations for Managers and Dispute Resolution Professionals. John Wiley and Sons, 2003.


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