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Dealing with Conflict in Project Teams

by Michael Stanleigh
Team conflict is challenging for project leaders but it is not necessarily bad. Conflict can lead to new ideas and approaches and facilitate the surfacing of important issues between team members if it is managed well.

According to various research studies on team conflict, the major sources of conflict among project teams are project goals not agreed upon, disagreement of the project's priorities and conflicting work schedules. This is no surprise since most organizations today run multiple projects and employees often find themselves serving on a variety of project teams. To add fuel to the fire, employees may report to a variety of project managers while reporting directly to functional managers. This sets the stage for further conflict opportunities due to communication and information flow. After all, when reporting relationships are complex it becomes more difficult to share information.

Personality and interpersonal issues may also draw conflict, particularly in high technology environments, where cross-functional, self-directed teams with technical backgrounds must rely on work of others to get their own work done.

So what's the learning from these research studies? The lesson here is clear. It's very important for cross-functional team members to receive training in communication and interpersonal skills.

Here are some recommendations for project leaders and project team members:
  1. Hold more frequent meetings and status review sessions to increase communication between functions and reduce misperceptions of project goals and priorities.
  2. Give team members soft skills training in human relations and facilitate more active team-building efforts.
  3. Foster an environment of mutual respect. No method of managing conflict will work without mutual respect and a willingness to disagree and resolve disagreements.

If conflict erupts in your team, try taking the following four steps to calm things down: Listen, Acknowledge, Respond and Resolve Remaining Differences

Listen: Clear your mind from distractions and really try to concentrate on what the person is trying to communicate-listen to both the words and non-verbal cues from gestures and body language. Gestures are often more important than words. After all, when resolving disagreements, you often have to deal with feelings first.

Acknowledge: Acknowledgement does not mean agreement. You can acknowledge what someone is saying without necessarily agreeing with them. Everyone's opinion and feelings are valid, even if different from yours. For example, statements like, "I understand you're angry," "Let's explore your suggestion further" or "If I understand you, you're saying that you disagree?" These are all ways of acknowledging their communication and their point of view. While you may not agree with what they are saying, it shows that they are being heard.

Respond: Now that you've acknowledged to them that you have heard what they have to say, it's your turn to respond. If you don't agree with what the person is saying, be sure that your feedback is constructive and offer an alternative suggestion. A good way to pose your response is to speak from personal experience. For example, "In my experience I have found that approach is ineffective because." Be prepared to explain your position and remain open to being challenged or questioned about it.

Resolve Remaining Differences: If you've listened carefully to people around you, you've probably figured out what's causing the disagreement. Once you've defined the real problem you should be able to break it down into manageable parts. This will help you to generate alternative solutions and then select the alternative in which everyone can agree.

Remember: for individuals to work effectively in a team there has to be a certain level of trust among the group. Each team member needs to feel "safe" about sharing their ideas. While others may not be in full agreement with another person's ideas, it's important for the team leader to foster an appreciation for the different views presented and explore the best alternative in a respectful manner with honest intent.

Most importantly, when conflict does occur in a team, leaders can gain ground by not avoiding it. By managing it well, acknowledging it and tolerating it, a team leader can actually use conflict as a tool to generate revitalized team engagement and innovation.

If the conflict is too great and the project leader is unable to get the team past it, then hiring a team coach is a good idea.
About the Author
As President and CEO of Business Improvement Architects, Michael works with executives and senior managers around the world to help them improve operational effectiveness through strategic planning, leadership development, project & quality management and innovation. He has been instrumental in helping his clients reduce waste and increase efficiencies and profits with his clear processes and quality approach. You may reach him at mstanleigh@bia.ca.
For more information about this article, please contact bia™ at info@bia.ca.
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