Serious businessmen in suits talking at meeting, stressful negotiations conceptConflict, confrontation and power.

What comes to mind when you read those words?

If you have a mixed reaction or a negative reaction, it’s time to revisit that attitude. To succeed in project management, you will face conflict, confrontation and related issues on a regular basis.

If you’re reading this blog, you might be wondering, “How does this conflict and confrontation information help me pass the PMP exam?” We will turn to that question next.

From the PMP Exam to Professional Practice

When you write the exam, you will face a variety of question types Some questions involve math. Others have a different approach on careful reading to detect the true answer. There are also questions that ask you to think through a hypothetical situation and come up with the right answer. These questions draw on your professional judgement as well as your PMP exam studying efforts.

In some cases, the right answer to an exam question will involve a confrontation. You may have to tell an executive or client that their original project goals cannot be achieved. That might mean rethinking the budget or taking a closer look at the project schedule. Delivering bad news to a senior person can be uncomfortable but it is critical.

For these type of exam questions, I recommend viewing them from the leader’s perspective. If you were funding a million-dollar project and it was in danger of failure, would you want to know? Of course, you would. However, simply knowing about a problem’s existence is not enough. An explanation or analysis on what happened and a rough plan to get back on track is what you really need to have.

TIP: Depending on the situation, a scenario question may directly or indirectly involve PMI’s ethics requirements. To find out more about those requirements, visit the

6 Steps to Handling Project Conflicts with Integrity and Professionalism

Use these steps to apply your process based thinking learned in your PMP studies in the professional world.

1. Expect Project Conflict to Occur

A moderate amount of project conflict and disagreement is healthy. It shows that project team members are engaged with the work and care about the outcome. Keep this point in mind especially if you are personally less comfortable with conflict situations. In addition, a project team that is still finding its footing is likely to have more disagreements.

2. Seek First to Understand the Other Person

Yes, we’re taking a page from the the best-selling book “The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People.” It might sound trite or obvious at first glance. However, it is tremendously powerful. Considering this principle before you deliver bad news will help you to connect effectively. For example, does the project sponsor prefer an email report or a short meeting to find out about problems? Adjusting your communication style to your audience is a key first step.

3. Get the Facts

When a project starts to fall apart, emotions flare up… Once that moment passes, it is time to get the facts. What do you actually know about the situation? Imagine if an auditor asked you questions about the situation, what documents or records could you show to explain the situation. Resist the urge to “create a story” to explain what happened in another department, project team member or stakeholder.

4. Develop Options to Address the Crisis

If you point out a major project problem and walk away, you are missing an opportunity to be proactive. Coming to the meeting with at least two possible solutions – even if the idea is not fully developed – is a smart move. If the project is in serious trouble, cancelling the project entirely may be the best move.

TIP: To spark ideas, look over the project charter. It will remind you of the ultimate purpose for starting the project in the first place. If there is no project charter or equivalent document explaining the project’s vision, you have more serious problems!

5. Be Prepared for a Short-term Hit

If you are the one who reports bad news on a project, you may suffer a short term hit. It could mean angry looks from others for a few days or something more severe. However, enduring some level of short-term discomfort is better than seeing major problems on the project and doing nothing about it.

6. Hold a “Mini Lessons Learned” Review

In your project management work, you will come across the concept of lessons learned. It’s a way of striving for continuous improvement in project work. In this case, you can apply that same concept to the way you handle conflict. Look for behaviors that are suitable to repeat such as presenting the facts clearly. Likewise, look for lessons on what not to do – such as publicly confronting a leader who is known for his temper.

TIP: Reflecting on your conflict performance is tough if you are unfamiliar with this activity. Consider asking a trusted colleague to meet with you for 20-30 minutes to assist you in reflecting on the experience.


Becoming successful at managing conflict situations takes insight and practice. You can shorten the process of becoming proficient by using these resources.

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Al Switzler, Joseph Grenny, and Ron McMillan

Addressing a conflict or successfully interacting with powerful people requires a conversation. This book opened my eyes to the fact that there are structures and processes you can use to make high stakes conversations.

The 360 Leader by John C Maxwell

John Maxwell’s leadership philosophy – that leadership is about influence, not titles – aligns perfectly with project managers. This book is aimed at individuals who sit in the “middle” of organizations.

Manager Tools Podcast Episode

This podcast series, in production since 2006, addresses conflict, communication and other related workplace skills in a clear and practical style. Start with the Resolving Conflict episode to improve your conflict skills.