The best and most successful projects usually require a top notch team collaborating on all cylinders throughout the engagement. Complete project success is difficult enough to achieve – the last thing the project manager needs is a team in conflict with each other. Performance will always suffer in a situation like that, therefore resolution... and I mean swift resolution... is a must.
What do you do? Let's consider this proposed five step approach to investigation, stabilising and moving forward with teams, conflicts and conflict management during a complex project engagement.
Five step approach to conflict management
Identify the conflict source or sources. First, the project manager must determine where the conflict or issue is originating if it is not abundantly obvious. This usually won't take long, but if only a performance issue is noted, then it may take some investigation to find the real root cause so that you can discuss the problem at length and find out what is holding the project back. The fix may be simple or it may be a more complicated team related problem such as what we are discussing here in this article.
Meet separately with each individual involved. As uncomfortable as it may be, you are the project manager - the team leader - and as long as the conflict doesn't directly involve you, then you must be the one who meets with the affected or involved parties directly... and, at first, separately. You must not show any bias for a "favourite". If you are unable to get past that bias then the entire situation will have to be handled by some independent third party like a supervisor not involved with the project or the parties involved or possibly even well removed from the project office, if one exists.
The goal is to meet separately and individually with each party involved and find out what the cause or source of the problem is. It maybe be a simple fix - a simple misunderstanding like as is the case on every boring and predictable sitcom from the beginning of time. Or it may be much deeper – the key is to find out what it is and is it fixable without a much more drastic, time consuming and expensive action like replacing resources mid-project.
Bring the involved parties together for a discussion. After working separately with each individual and discussing the negative affects of the conflict situation on the project and team with each individual, bring both or the multiple parties together for a discussion and an attempt to quickly rectify the issue. Understanding if it's major and one individual has harmed the team, project and/or project customer, there may be a need to remove one or more members of the team and begin the process of on boarding a replacement. The hope, of course, is that won't be necessary as it is usually time consuming, expensive to the project in terms of learning curve and extra resource hours, and can lead to customer uneasiness as the team dynamics change.
Meet as an entire team. Next, gather the entire team together to discuss any necessary actions that need to be taken and how to move forward. You could keep this just between you and the individuals involved, but with the tight knit, collaborative project team you need to be, then there is nothing really that shouldn't be part of the team as a whole... including this resolution of the conflict between two or more members of that team. Leaving the rest of the team out of any discussion, resolution and forward planning and action is a potential for wedges and communication gaps to be introduced into your project team dynamics.
Test the waters going forward. Finally, move forward and leave the conflict in the past – almost as if it had never happened. Bringing it up is only causes a potential for frustration and divisiveness... both of which are going to be performance roadblocks for the team as a whole. The hope is that the conflict has been satisfactorily resolved, and that everyone can move forward productively to get past this blip and focus on the project and all the tasks that still lay ahead between the current progress and the final solution.
Summary / call for input
Conflict is part of the game, but like lessons learned, performance reviews, and employee terminations, we tend to want to shy away from those negative things in life – especially in our careers and the engagements we are directly working on. We have to move on and face and even manage these individuals – maybe for another year on the project. But if we want any chance at succeeding on the project for the customer, any team conflicts need to be dealt with and resolved as quickly as possible... always.
Readers – what is your experience with conflict management amongst your project team. Have you experienced it? What are your best paths to management and resolution?