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Conflict management. It's a nasty two-word phrase most managers would rather not deal with.
For me, it ranks right up there with “performance reviews” and “department budgets” as two of the least loved tasks that those in leadership have to deal with unless they find some poor unsuspecting soul to dump those tasks onto. I've been that poor unsuspecting soul in the past, however, that challenging experience taught me valuable conflict management techniques and lessons.
In my book, there are several ways to go about managing team conflicts, including emulating a hockey referee when a fight breaks out - let it go for a while because sometimes it just has to run its course. Watching for a short while also helps you analyze the situation and may help you deal with it more efficiently when you do step in to take action.
Here is my 4 step method to team conflict management and resolution. For lack of a better term or perhaps because I like the applicable acronym, I call it my S.L.A.P. method of team conflict resolution. Here is what S.L.A.P. stands for...
As a father with kids aged ten years and under, I’ve learned not to step into every one of these “hockey” conflicts in the workplace. Getting drawn into “he said, she said” arguments is not productive for anyone, especially when it’s something that will blow over quickly.
When you acknowledge there is a conflict worth addressing, that is significantly disrupting part or all of the team, and the environment is not conducive to doing your best work, the first thing you must do is stop it.
Take the team members involved aside, and rationally discuss the matter with them for the betterment of the project, team, and customer. Which brings us to our next step.
You have realized there is a need to step in and take some action to keep your team together and productive, and to keep the project from going off the tracks, off the timeline, and crashing head-on into high customer expectations.
Sit the involved parties down and hear what their conflict or differences are. Give everyone the stage – show no favoritism and take no immediate action no matter how crazy or petty someone's gripe may seem to be. Listen to each person without interrupting, or allowing others to interrupt them until you have heard everyone’s story.
If you haven’t done so in the past, create an environment moving forward where people feel comfortable discussing their concerns with you at team meetings or privately if need be. This will allow you to get an idea of what is going on behind the scenes and take corrective action before it blows up into a more significant conflict.
Analyze and address
So you've sat the team (or two or three individuals involved) down to discuss the conflict. Ask yourself these questions:
What are the issues?
Are they legitimate?
Can they be easily solved?
If you're working with project-only resources and they report to a manager somewhere else in the organization... do you need to take it to their supervisor? Do you need to replace one or more resources on the project team?
It is recommended to – if at all possible – avoiding needing to replace any project resources. The more you can do to discuss, analyze and resolve within the team is going to be your best solution because replacing project resources in midstream means time, money, a learning curve, and an explanation to the project customer. You may miss a critical project milestone or deliverable date as a result. You may have to wait on the right resource replacement with the proper skill set as well as experiencing a learning curve. It can get ugly and cause significant project timeline and budgetary impacts.
A big incentive for you to resolve the issue, other than getting your project back on track, is to avoid your project customer getting involved in any team conflicts going on. Once your customer loses confidence in your abilities as a project manager to control and manage your project team, that is a significant problem for you. You could be removed from the project, or in the worst case scenario, the organization – as a result.
Finally, push forward with whatever decisions or actions have been mandated by the conflict. Hopefully, it's as simple as a team or team member discussion to air out any differences, fix and move on.
Perhaps one resource thought they were getting low-end tasks to work on and wanted what another resource was working on because it offered more productive hours and higher visibility. That may be a legitimate issue and maybe you as the project manager made some mistakes in task delegations that led to it, or perhaps it was necessary based on skill sets and experience. That's for you to work out.
Work it out with the team and when everyone is ready and in agreement - and not before and not prematurely – move forward. Take the proper amount of time because moving forward again before the issue is resolved completely is just asking for it to resurface again later in the project – possibly with an even more significant impact to the project.
The bottom line is that team conflict on a critical project can be like cancer and spread throughout the team. It can cause an otherwise productive and effective team to begin to distrust each other, produce errors, and cause delays or even refusals to work on tasks together. Childish behavior could become the norm quickly if it's not caught and resolved efficiently, respectfully, quietly and quickly. Don't let this be one of your projects – consider team conflict a risk to manage on every project and discuss its potential adverse effects from the outset. And make your team meetings such that resources feel comfortable addressing any concerns they may have.
Readers – what's your take on this list... these steps? Do you agree? Have you had to deal with project team member conflicts? Anger management issues (those are always fun!), or times when two project resources simply couldn't be in the same room with each other? What did you do? Please share and discuss.
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This is the third article in our six-part How to be a Successful Project Manager series. Want more? Download the full ebook below.
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