Guest Column | March 22, 2021

WWEMA Window: Conflict — Sounds Bad, But Is It Really Good?

By Henk-Jan van Ettekoven


Conflict is all around us. Even the most well-run organizations will encounter conflict in their daily operations, and sometimes, healthy conflict is a sign that things are running well. The natural result of competing interests and limited resources, conflict can be an opportunity to refine and improve processes, outcomes, and relationships across an organization. When managed poorly, it can also be a serious hindrance to getting things done and deplete employee morale. In our personal and professional lives, people often go to great lengths to avoid conflict and the sometimes unsettling feelings it evokes, but is that really the wisest choice?

In the water industry specifically, conflict is no stranger. The commonly used Design-Bid-Build (DBB) process even embodies a style of conflict resolution: competition. While DBB is structured specifically to be competitive and conflicting in nature, the DBB process of project management uses a competitive method in an attempt to improve outcomes for the end-user. While it can definitely be useful for lowering the price and meeting performance requirements, the competitive framework can result in other pitfalls that are not immediately apparent until projects have gone wrong.

While the DBB could be seen as a competitive framework for conflict resolution, there are several other ways to resolve conflict.

Avoidance of conflict, while technically not “resolving” a conflict, is definitely a method of dealing with it. How often do operators have to get creative with workarounds for broken processes simply because issues are present but budgets are meager? While far from ideal, avoidance definitely has a place in conflict resolution, but will often result in a sub-optimal outcome.

Accommodation is a style of conflict resolution when the needs of one party are considered, while the needs of the other party are ignored. This is often the case when it comes to rate increases. It can be very difficult to find the political will or capital necessary to shepherd a rate increase through a political process. Even when there is a will, it often leads to another style of conflict resolution — compromise.

Compromise is when each party gives something up to find a solution that can work for both of them. Generally, ratepayers can begrudgingly accept an increase if it provides improved quality or higher assurances of safety. While neither party is getting exactly what they want, they are getting the most important requirements met. This style of addressing conflict often results in a better outcome than avoidance, but often also results in a sub-optimal outcome. However, it is preferred over avoidance, as avoidance can often result in gridlock or the status quo. Thus, it is better to move ahead with a compromise solution rather than not advancing at all.

Sometimes, however, a win-win is possible. Collaborative styles attempt to provide a solution for meeting the needs of all parties involved. While not always possible, and usually the result of heavy out-of-the-box thinking, collaborative styles of conflict resolution are often sought as ideal. Examples of the collaborative style of conflict resolution might be the use of alternative methods of funding for projects or the creation of public-private partnerships to mitigate the risk undertaking by the municipality. Projects that result from a collaborative style have the best chance of approaching an optimal outcome and satisfying multiple objectives.

In practice, several of these styles of conflict resolution are probably in play for any given conflict scenario at different points in the process. It’s important to remember with any method of conflict resolution, however, that alternatives are available. If the status quo isn’t working, try something else. Don’t be afraid to at least explore the give-and-take conversations and invest the time. You might be surprised with the outcome!

Henk-Jan van Ettekoven is President of HUBER Technology Inc. and a member of the Water and Wastewater Equipment Manufacturers Association (WWEMA) Board of Directors. He also serves on the Association’s Investment Committee. WWEMA is a non-profit trade association formed in 1908 to represent water and wastewater technology manufacturers and related service providers. WWEMA is made up of many of the most prominent and influential companies in the industry who are working together to shape the future of water and wastewater technology in the U.S. and around the world. For more information about WWEMA, go to You are also invited to follow WWEMA on LinkedIn at Interested in becoming a WWEMA member? Contact WWEMA Executive Director, Vanessa Leiby at