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Conflict on project teams and how to prevent them

Christopher Scordo (PMP®, ITIL®) of

Scordo (PMP, ITIL) is a published author and Managing Director of SSI Logic (
www.ssilogic.com), owners of the popular PMP training
website, PMPerfect. 
the latest on PMP exam prep, live online classes, and self-paced PMP

When you are working together as a team,
conflict will happen. It’s one of the biggest challenges for project executives,
directors, and managers; but it does not have to be a bad thing. Thinking of
conflict as a route to new ideas and approaches is one of the best ways to
combat it. It’s also vital to bring issues between members to the surface; you
just need to ensure that it’s managed well.

Studies on team conflict from the British Journal of Educational Technology
and Wiley InterScience show that
major sources of conflict amongst project teams usually revolve around:
disagreement regarding overall project goals, disagreements on project priorities,
and conflicts regarding project schedules. This happens because so many
companies often run multiple projects at the same time and team members can get
lost and confused if their schedules are not managed properly. 

On top of all of these issues, personality
clashes and interpersonal issues also lead to conflicts, particularly when it
comes to organizations with complex technical responsibilities where
cross-functional and self-directed teams with a technical background have to
rely on others to get their work done.

can we learn from these research studies, then?  It is absolutely vital for cross-functional
team members to receive training in communication and interpersonal skills, but
it’s equally important for project managers to limit the eruption of conflict
when they are avoidable.

As an effective project manager, here are some
tips to help prevent unnecessary conflict.

Hold regular,
scheduled status meetings

Meet with your team at least weekly to receive
formal updates on project statuses; and maintain daily communication with team
members to ensure they have an open communication channel to you. Make sure
communication channels stay open and communicate clearly and openly about the
goals and priorities in order to reduce misperceptions.

Soft train
your team in human relations

Those from technical backgrounds often
struggle to communicate properly with people who do not come from a technical
background.  Explaining basic
communications principles to your technical team, and including those team
members on customer emails to lead by example, will make a massive difference.  Also try to arrange team-building exercises
across channels if at all possible.  This
is especially important as technical team members interact with clients who may
not have expert knowledge on the effort involved with technical goals.

project hierarchy

Team members in strict project hierarchies
with little access to project and organizational leaders will often feel
condescended to, resulting in conflict with their peers.  There is no reason why project executives, directors,
and managers shouldn’t value the opinions and perspectives of all team
members.  Communicating to upper
management in one manner, while ignoring or de-prioritizing the needs of team
members, is a sure way to develop contempt within an organization.  This type of approach also results in a
trickle-down effect, whereby functional leaders within an organization “manage
up”, and disregard the needs of the team they manage.  Ultimately, it is very simple to maintain
organizational authority while treating others with respect.

Encourage mutual

No matter how good you are at managing
conflict, it will not work if your team does not respect one other, and if they
do not respect the people they are working with. Fostering an environment which
nurtures respect will help with the willingness to agree and disagree and to
reach compromises without contempt.  

Basic steps
to take when conflict erupts

Listen:  For inter-team conflict, make sure you get
both sides of the story− listen to their concerns and what exactly their
problem is. Also, keep an eye on non-verbal cues. Your team’s body language,
tone, and demeanour might tell you everything you need to know about how they
are feeling.  Help them get over any
anger they might have before delving into dealing with the conflict.

Acknowledge:  Just because you acknowledge the situation or
issue, does not mean you are agreeing with them. Everybody needs to feel like
they are valued and that their opinion matters, so even if it seems somewhat
irrelevant and even irrational, acknowledge that you are aware of how your team
members are feeling. Focus on saying things like:  "I understand you're angry," "let's
explore your suggestion further" or "if I understand you, you're
saying that you disagree?" This is simply acknowledging the other person’s

: Now you have to be proactive as a manager.  While it could very well raise more conflict,
as a project leader, it is your responsibility to deal with. You might need to
use a different range of approaches, but keep in mind that your ultimate goal (and
everyone’s ultimate goal) is to ensure a successful project.  As such, you need to take whatever necessary
steps to get there.

As a project manager, you should be prepared
for conflict to arise at any time. It is part of the business you are in.
Keeping calm, listening to others and acknowledging that everybody’s opinion
matters will be the key in dealing with issues.

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