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Performance Issues – Conflict Within the Team

Dealing with conflict, whether its between members on your team, or between someone on your team and another stakeholder, is one of the most difficult and demanding problems you are called upon to deal with in the course of managing a project. This article is not meant to be a comprehensive manual on the subject of conflict resolution, it is meant to provide you with some tips and tricks which may help to solve your problem. You should avail yourself of the multitude of training products in this area if you want to become an expert in the area of conflict resolution. There are also many consultants who specialize in the field of conflict resolution where the situation demands immediate outside help.

You should keep your focus on the needs of your project when you tackle a conflict within your team. You want to correct the negative impacts the conflict is having on producing quality deliverables on time. This focus should allow you to distinguish between conflicts that you should intervene in and ones which don’t need your intervention. Your first instinct may be to intervene in any situation where discussion becomes heated, voices are raised, or any other signs of animosity are displayed but remember that when people are passionate about what they are doing, emotions can boil over. The difference between the conflict you must resolve and a heated disagreement that doesn’t warrant your intervention is that the heated disagreement will tend to resolve itself because the participants both have the same objectives and they’re the project’s objectives. Communicating these objectives clearly and drawing a clear connection between project objectives and team member deliverables will ensure that everyone on the team has the same objectives.

A conflict over a technical issue – each participant sincerely believes that their approach is the best one and should be implemented may require your intervention when the participants are incapable or unwilling to resolve the issue themselves. There are several symptoms to watch for that will alert you to this situation. The conflict may result in excessive bickering between the two team members – they’ll argue at each others’ work stations, in the hallways, or in team meetings. You may be appraised of the conflict when one or more deadlines are missed and questioning reveals the conflict. The conflict may result in components of the system that don’t integrate properly because two different design approaches were taken. You may be appraised of the conflict when one or both of the team members approach you with the conflict. Your objective should be to identify this type of conflict before damage is done to project deliverables or schedules, and resolve it.

Your first step will be to attempt to grasp the technical details behind the dispute. Consult with a senior member of the team (both in technical skills and maturity) who isn’t a personal friend of either of the combatants. The reason for this investigation is not so much to allow you to choose the best solution, as it is to speak intelligently about the issue when you guide your to battling team members to choose a solution themselves. You should intervene in the selection of a resolution only where one approach would clearly damage the project. Your next step is to schedule a meeting with the two combatants. Don’t delay this step too long. The sooner you hold the meeting the sooner the risk of damage to the project is mitigated. Inform your team members of the purpose of the meeting: to resolve the conflict, and the meeting’s objective: to choose the solution that is the best for the project. Emphasize that meeting the project’s objectives is the most important consideration. State clearly to both combatants that the outcome of the meeting must be a solution that meets the project’s objectives. There is a possibility that in the course of discussing the two solutions, a third solution may be identified that is more attractive than either of the two the combatants offer. Be sure to communicate this possibility to your combatants and that the identification of a new solution, superior to either of theirs is the most desirable outcome of the meeting.

Start the meeting by re-stating the meeting purpose and objectives, then have one of the participants articulate their technical solution to the problem. Allow the other participant to ask questions, but only after the first has finished stating their solution. Now repeat the step for the 2nd participant. I’m assuming at this point that the dispute has not developed into a personal issue between the two participants so you should be able to avoid discussions on the feelings of your two participants. Just in case though, have the participants avoid references to each other or each others solutions. Now identify the criteria for selecting the best solution. You may also want to identify a weighting strategy for the criteria (numerical, must have, important, nice to have, etc.) but try and keep the criteria set small and simple. Remember that there are 3 people in the room so there should be no "ties”. When you have to go with one participant or the other be sure to state the reason for your decision.

One of the benefits of the participants in the conflict meeting in front of a facilitator (you) is the possibility of the identification of alternative solutions that combine the best from both participants resolutions. You may be able to elicite these suggestions when you evaluate the 2 solutions against the criteria for selecting the best one. If neither solution will meet the objectives of the project, you’ll need to focus on the hybrid solution which will meet the objectives. When you have identified a solution which meets the project objectives and best meets the criteria identified for a solution, have both of the participants agree to implement the solution. It’s important that both participants have the same understanding of the solution so articulate the solution (or have one of the participants articulate it), correcting any misconceptions, and then record it so you can communicate it to the participants after the meeting. Make sure that both participants agree to the actions required from them, especially any deadlines they must meet.

Confusion over roles is another source of potential conflict within the team. Confusion is most often caused by ambiguity in defining the roles, or poor communication of the roles. Claims by both combatants that a decision belongs to them are one symptom of this cause. The approach to resolution of this conflict is the resolution meeting, very similar to the one I just described. The meeting dynamics, purpose, and objective will be slightly different. The overarching objective for the meeting will be the project objective. In this case, the objective will be less tightly connected with the conflict. The purpose of the meeting will be to determine who has the authority to make the disputed decision, and to more clearly define the roles of the participants. This is a leadership issue so you need to take ownership of the decision (i.e. who has the authority to make the disputed decision). Have each of the participants state their view on their roles, responsibilities, and authority and then make your decision stating the roles, responsibilities, and authority of each participant clearly beginning with the disputed decision. Make your decision as palatable as possible to each of the participants. The goal is to clarify roles without either participant losing "face” in the process. Each of the participants should clearly understand what is expected of them after this meeting but you should follow the meeting up with an e-mail containing details so each participant has the same understanding.

Conflicts that stem from cultural differences, professional differences, or other non-project related causes are much more difficult to resolve. These are differences that typically involve more than 2 members of the team so cannot be resolved by face to face meetings between 2 combatants, you’ll have to use a different approach.

Try team building exercises to resolve conflicts stemming from cultural differences. Team building exercises come in many different shapes and forms. You’re looking for a team building exercise that will provide the team with a better understanding of each others culture and resolve misunderstandings that are caused by ignorance of new cultures. This is a very sensitive area and is where outside consultants who are experienced in this type of exercise can add value. Engage the experts in this field if at all possible; your Human Resources department should be your first stop in a shopping trip for outside help. When you can’t bring in the experts, keep the mechanics of your team building exercise as straightforward as possible. Even though some of the best experts use techniques such as the Meyers Briggs personality test I recommend avoiding these as they require some skill to administer properly.

A key tool in resolving conflict caused by cultural differences is "cultural fluency”. Educate your team on the various cultures on your team. You could introduce a 5 minute segment in your team meetings where a team member from each culture presents their culture: the holidays that are important to them, their beliefs, their values, their customs, things that are taboo in their culture, etc. Increasing the cultural fluency of your team is a good way to avoid the conflicts caused by culturally based misunderstandings and insensitivity.

Schedule a meeting where you and the team can agree upon a set of team rules and guidelines that will eliminate the behavior causing the conflicts. Don’t go crazy with these rules, try to limit their number, complexity, and intrusiveness as much as possible. Rules should cover areas where behavior affects the entire team, and impacts on work. Rules on punctual meeting attendance are an example of an appropriate rule. Rules on the type of clothing that is appropriate for the workplace are not (they are an example of a rule that should be addressed by the Human Resources department).

Use your judgment when deciding on whether to inform your project’s sponsors about conflicts on the team and any steps you take to resolve them. Your sponsors won’t want to be mired in details of a technical dispute, but on the other hand will certainly want to be informed of culture differences that impact the entire team.

If none of the remedies I’ve described above are effective in resolving the conflict, refer the problem to the Human Resources department and ask for their help. Present the problem to your project’s sponsors, along with all the facts about the conflict, any remedies you’ve attempted and your ask of the Human Resources department if you encounter any resistance from Human Resources.