The conflict staircase

23. January 2019John Ryding Olsson

Solve the conflict while it is still easy!

Conflicts are natural in projects and it actually stimulates and generates innovation when you have different points of view or approaches. But conflicts can also become destructive and should be solved in a suitable manner. The conflict staircase is relevant to illustrate when you as project manager should intervene. Depending on which literature you choose there are different conflict staircases where the steps are named differently but the principle is basically the same.

Conflicts start when we have different points of view and discuss our approaches. If we don’t solve our disagreements at this level there is a tendency that our interest in listening to the other persons arguments subsides.

When a conflict between two people becomes polarized they may not be able to solve the conflict by themselves. They need a mediator. This is where you, the project manager, step in. A conflict has become polarized, when no more new arguments are being presented. The two parties keep repeating the same arguments – only louder.

It might even go so far that the parties ignore each others viewpoints and just start doing what they want. If the conflict persists we start to forget the reason for it. So now the conflict is caused by the counterpart who – by the way – is a scoundrel. In this phase we often slander our counterpart in order to gain supporters. We try to build an alliance against our counterpart. ”I have heard that he delivered bad quality in other projects as well”, or ”It is typically always him who comes late and unprepared to the meetings – he is wasting our time!” Now we are targeting the person.

If we don’t stop the conflict it will become a downright war, where we try to disable our counterpart. When all comes to all we might be willing to initiate the total war, Kamikaze. You want your counterpart to bite the dust no matter the cost!! At this point the conflict is destructive and harmful for the relation – or more correctly the relation is gone. Therefore it is essential to handle the conflict before it moves too far up the conflict staircase.

In general you can say that conflicts are much easier to solve the further down on the conflict staircase they are. So if you want to avoid conflicts you have to handle them when they are at the lowest steps. Be aware of the conflicts in your project and intervene in time.


"I am someone who hopes for the best and prepares for the worst."

- Hillary Clinton

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John Ryding Olsson Founder & author
John Ryding Olsson Founder & author John Ryding Olsson

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