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Personality clashes on projects: how to identify triggers and mitigate conflict

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Personalities will clash in all sorts of projects. There was the McLaren-Honda Formula 1 team of the late 1980s, where the shy Alain Prost collided, sometimes literally, with the complex Brazilian Ayrton Senna; the Beatles, where clean-cut Paul McCartney jarred with the abrasive John Lennon; even singers Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey arguing on the set of American Idol.

Whatever the environment, it’s perfectly natural that project teams should include members who don’t get along personally. Yet, with all the pressures that come with delivering a project on time, such clashes can have a hugely detrimental effect – souring the atmosphere, increasing stress levels and making teams less productive.

Get the issues on the table

“The impact can be very severe,” says Susanne Madsen, project leadership coach, trainer and consultant. “There are many characteristics of a high-performing team, but one is that its members contribute in roughly equal measure. If you have one or two people who can’t collaborate, it will affect the entire dynamic. So it’s very important to get the issues on the table, and not sweep it all under the carpet.”

Here, Madsen alludes to a feature of personality clashes that can make the issue particularly tricky for project managers to navigate: much of the action takes place inside people’s heads. There may be a visible flashpoint to a conflict but, she says, there’s usually so much more to the iceberg lurking beneath the surface.

“The apparent trigger usually isn’t the trigger,” says Madsen. “A clash is often sparked because someone has been triggered by behaviours and feelings. And it’s often hard to say quite why it had that effect: it could be something deep-seated but ultimately quantifiable, like someone’s values; equally it may be an inferiority complex or something deep-rooted from the person’s past.”

Shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted

So how should a project manager react when they see a personality clash erupt? According to Nick Fewings, CEO of ngagementworks, if they wait that long, it’s already too late.

“Conflict management is like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted,” he says. “If teams aren’t aware of potential behavioural differences early, then once you get into the nitty gritty of a project and things start to go wrong, or there’s time and budget pressure, you start to get finger-pointing, and that’s detrimental.

“You should nip that stuff in the bud by raising awareness of differences in personality right from day one, when the team first gets together. They can then appreciate that everyone wants success, even if they’re coming at it from different angles.”

Fewings suggests using personality profiling, such as Insights or Clarity 4D, based on the psychology of Carl Jung. These tools seed a critical understanding of others and create a shift in perception of how personal dynamics work – which can help suck the oxygen out of an inflammatory clash later.

“When I work with teams, I try to establish two paradigm shifts,” says Fewings. “First, that people don’t see others as difficult, but simply different to them. And second, rather than being frustrated at how people do things, they should be fascinated that they do things differently and still get a good result.”

If a clash is allowed to fester and blow up, a project manager may find their role is limited. They should speak up and address the elephant in the room, making it clear that aggression won’t be tolerated. And they need to show emotional intelligence, encouraging people to take a breath, move beyond the reflex response, and reach a place of calmer reflection.

Looking inwards

However, it’s not the project manager’s role to resolve the conflict. They should instead leave it to the people involved to own the situation themselves.

Madsen recalls how she was once coaching a client who’d been involved in a personality clash. Their project manager gave the two people in question a clear instruction – to go into a room and not reappear until they’d resolved it.

“He said he didn’t care how they did it, just get over it,” she says. “My client told me how, at the beginning, they just sat there for maybe 20 minutes, too angry to say anything to each other. Eventually one of them said: ‘Okay, so what do we do about this?’ Gradually they had to find a way.”

But what if it’s the project manager themselves involved in the clash of personalities? Ultimately, the task there is one of self-examination. Because while we may wish to change the person we’re clashing with, that’s one project that’s destined to elude us. The only option is to look inwards, park the ego and honestly examine what it is about us that caused the reaction in the first place. 

“A clash often says more about the person that gets triggered than the person who’s doing the triggering,” says Madsen. “That’s what makes it all so interesting.”

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