Skillsoft Blog

How to Prevent Conflict on Project Teams

By Christopher Scordo (PMP®, ITIL®) of www.PMPerfect.com 

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

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.

What 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.

De-emphasize 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 respect

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 feelings.

Take action: 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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