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Boiling points and burnout: Recognising the triggers of conflict

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Conflict is part of project management. When you bring people with different skills, backgrounds and personalities into a high-pressure environment, friction will inevitably occur. While a small amount of conflict is healthy, if left unchecked it can quickly derail your project.

While many resources highlight signs of conflict to look out for (e.g., changes in behaviour or team cliques developing), when those signs appear, it’s often too late. The damage may already be done.

So how do you stay ahead of the curve and fend off conflict before it rears its head? Here are some of common triggers of conflict on projects and how you can mitigate them.

1. Uncertainty and change in the organisation

Whether it’s a departmental restructure, a change of leadership or a shift in ways of working, nothing puts people on edge more than organisational uncertainty.

Experience tells us that large organisational changes nearly always lead to reduced morale and engagement alongside increased stress as people’s minds become preoccupied with worry and anxiety.

To avoid conflict erupting, project managers must evolve into project leaders. Lean on your emotional intelligence and people skills to support those in your team who need to vent, talk through their uncertainties and share their feelings in uncertain times.

2. The project is entering a high-pressure phase

Whether it’s a new programme that’s snowballing or an imminent technical go-live, all change initiatives go through waves of high and low pressure. While some people thrive on that pressure, using it to sharpen their focus and productivity, others can quickly become overwhelmed.

During these phases, as a project manager, it’s your job to facilitate the ‘Goldilocks’ pressure level: keep the project’s pressure gauge just right and you’ll maximise performance; let it get too hot and you’ll end up with trouble.

During these high-pressure periods, you need to champion a strong work-life balance. Ensure you encourage team members to take regular breaks and work sensible hours. Celebrate successes when the right opportunities crop up. This will help keep the pressure at the right level while still delivering on your objectives.

3. New team members are working together for the first time

Project teams are inherently fluid, reshaping as new resources come and go to help the project move forward. While new faces, ideas and personalities often bring a renewed sense of life to a team, they can also upset the apple cart.

When onboarding new team members, carefully manage their integration. Project charters, RACI diagrams and terms of reference all help set the scene for the project, clearly setting out the playbook of the team and their place within it.

4. The project is constrained on resource, time or cost

A perfect project doesn’t exist. At some point, you’ll face resource, time or cost constraints, leading the entire team to feel the pinch.

Studies have shown a direct relationship between burnout and conflict, with an increased workload driving people to boiling point. There’s a good chance that pressure will come to a head, creating a ripple effect across the team.

If you’ve got constraints on your project, as the project manager, you need to take action to reset your stakeholders’ expectations before it leads to conflict.

Don’t be afraid to say no to extra demands when you’re under-resourced, under-funded and tight on time. If you always say yes, it won’t be long until the heat around the team becomes too much and conflict erupts.


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