5 Tips for Managing and Benefiting from Construction Conflicts

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Winston Churchill said, “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.” A construction project has many opportunities and many difficulties throughout its life, and how they are perceived and navigated is a critical element to success. 

Conflicts and disputes riddle the construction industry, frequently leading to broken contracts, contract revisions, severed relationships, design changes, and even litigation. According to the Arcadis Global Construction Disputes Report, the 2020 global average dispute value was $54.26 million. That is a lot of money wrapped up in conflict! In fact, modern arbitration practices grew from two principal sectors of the economy: shipping and (you guessed it) construction. 

There are contract disputes that impact businesses and budgets, and then there are jobsite disputes that affect the daily life of a jobsite. A seasoned superintendent ruffles the feathers of an upcoming foreman. A rookie project manager saves his company a dollar at the expense of a good working relationship with the architect and owner. A subcontractor becomes heated when given direction by the general contractor to do their task a different way. The list goes on and on. 

Conflict is normal. Disputes and discord are inevitable when multiple parties - general contractors, architects, owners, subcontractors, consultants -  with differing opinions and interpretations are all working together to complete a project. 

While conflict presents itself on every project, how a construction team reacts and responds can determine their success and the project’s success. Here are a few tips for managing conflict and using difficulties as opportunities. 


1. Avoid Conflict, Act Fast


Wait? Avoid conflict? I thought you were just saying to view conflict as an opportunity, you say. 

We mean that a vast majority of disputes in construction should not result in prolonged conflict between parties. The global average for a construction dispute is 13-½ months. Many projects are built in that amount of time. Legal disputes are time-consuming and expensive, and while sometimes unavoidable, the goal should be to resolve the disagreement quickly. 

As soon as a disagreement begins to surface, it is time to address it. Don’t wait for the problem to fester and lead to lawyers getting involved because, at that point, there is no real winner. 


2. Reveal the Root


A team can’t adequately resolve a conflict until its root is brought to light. 

Is the dispute the result of a simple misunderstanding, or do the parties have drastically different interpretations of the contract documents? Has poor communication led to misunderstanding and frustrated individuals? Perhaps one party has been burned in the past and is wary of a similar outcome occurring again. 

Seek to pinpoint the root of the issue by allowing all parties to share their perspectives. Actively listening to each other will go a long way in resolving the conflict and preserving relationships. According to the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, there are several ways in which people approach and deal with conflict. Understanding your construction partners’ tendencies and management styles can better equip you to find the roof of a disagreement and deal with it effectively. 


3. De-Escalate Emotions


Emotions and personal feelings are real, especially when you have a group of people passionate about their work and performance. Still, personal emotions can quickly become a roadblock to conflict resolution.

Heated debates are not all bad, but navigating these conversations requires some savviness to ensure that the team remains pointed toward common goals. If temperatures are rising during a disagreement and things are about to blow up, call time-out and return to the conversation after things have cooled down. 

It is possible to be right and still be wrong. You may win an argument or get your way in a conflict, but if you burn a relationship in the process, did you win? Depending on the level of the conflict, perhaps. But always be careful not to win a battle but lose the war. 

4. Communicate Clearly

Good communication is one of the best measures to prevent a dispute or move through one that arises. 

At CDO Group, we strive to communicate expectations clearly with our construction partners from day one. When expectations are clear, there are fewer chances for surprises that lead to disputes. Note the fewer in the previous sentence. Despite best efforts, disagreements will still present themselves. But effective communication during these disagreements will lead to a quicker resolution. 

Conflicts can provide valuable insight if allowed to - they are great opportunities to assess how well one is communicating and make adjustments as necessary. 

5. Collaborate and Compromise

Two effective strategies for managing conflict in construction are collaboration and compromise. 

In collaboration, the parties involved work together to find an alternative solution to the conflict and keep things moving forward. For example, a contractor and architect disagree on the best way to waterproof a roof penetration. The two parties collaborate and land on a detail that includes the best of both approaches. 

In a compromise, it’s the give-and-take approach to finding a resolution. For example, a contractor and owner could decide to split the costs of a contested change order in the interest of putting the item to bed. 

Collaboration and compromise are effective, but there’s no one right way. The goal is to determine which will bring the quickest, cleanest, and best end to the conflict. 


Construction is no different from any other industry involving human interactions: conflict is real. In reality, disputes in construction present themselves at a higher rate than in many other industries. It is crucial to be ready for conflict, whether a heated exchange on the jobsite or a disagreement over contractual obligations.

Using the above tips to navigate your next conflict can help you not simply manage the disagreement but benefit from it, using it as an opportunity to gain a better understanding or a new way of doing things. 

Be an optimist - see opportunity in the next difficulty.


December 1st, 2021 |