When team members from across the organization meet, conflict can arise. Learn when to step in and when to step back.
by Ann C. Logue
even the most professional of employees has been known to resort to dysfunctional behavior—the kind of stuff that mires teams in turf battles and causes colleagues to neglect a project rather than deal with the headaches. “Project teams never blow up over technical issues. They blow up over interpersonal issues,” says Jeff Crow, president, Crow Development Corp., Portland, Ore., USA. “A lot of times we assume that because we're all adults and we're all professionals, we don't have emotions and that we don't sometimes act like children.”
To avoid such ugliness, project managers should steer clear of three common blunders.
Mistake 1: Assuming professionals know how to work together.
Professionals may boast the functional skills they need to get the job done, but that doesn't mean they've picked up the necessary interpersonal expertise along the way. Although you may not be able to choose who will be part of your team, you can make a difference in how well they gel. To unite a group of diverse team members, set norms to keep the energy from being destructive, says George Eckes. Based in Superior, Colo., USA, he is the author of Six Sigma Team Dynamics: The Elusive Key to Project Success [Wiley, 2002]. Doing so means going back to such fundamentals as making an agenda and sticking to it. “There is a tremendous absence of basic facilitation skills in any project we see,” he says.
Mr. Eckes recommends project managers kick off new team efforts by covering how to conduct meetings, evaluate progress, and prevent and manage maladaptive behavior. “Without good structure to the group, it doesn't matter how great the people are,” he says. “They will flounder if they don't have the systems in place.”
Without good structure to the group, it doesn't matter how great the people are. They will flounder if they don't have the systems in place.
—George Eckes, Six Sigma Team Dynamics: The Elusive Key to Project Success, Superior, Colo., USA
In addition to establishing the rules of engagement, project managers should discuss team members' expectations and behaviors at the get-go. “Even if no one explicitly sets up a norm, norms are quickly developed in team settings,” says Sujin Lee, Ph.D., a professor at the Team and Group Research Center at Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management, Evanston, Ill., USA.
Project teams never blow up over technical issues. They blow up over interpersonal issues.
–Jeff Crow, Crow Development Corp., Portland, Ore., USA
Project managers must deploy explicit vision, mission and instruction statements to set healthy norms that encourage cooperation, support and mutual interest, she says. Otherwise team members may fall into unhealthy behavior—competition, power struggles, conflict and self-interest. “It is essential that the team spend the time to ensure they understand the end-to-end requirement and the interfaces between them,” says Ian Robson, managing director of Perception Dynamics, Surrey, U.K., a consulting firm that specializes in strategy and leadership development. He has teams work backward from the goal to delineate the necessary steps and timing. This practice gets them thinking about the goal from the start and creates an outward rather than internal focus.
Mistake 2: Forcing everyone to be on the same page.
This may be the trickiest mistake to avoid, because everyone comes from a different background, has different perceptions of work and different career aspirations. There should be a single, coherent plan of action for a project to move forward, but individual efforts and ideas must be acknowledged.
first meeting checklist
When you first sit down with your team, these six basics can encourage professional and profitable behavior.
Make a plan. Compose an agenda for the meeting and stick to it. Once you've planned the meeting, plan the project. “Methods are where the vast majority of conflict comes in on a project,” says Jeff Crow, Crow Development Corp. “You need to manage that.” Brainstorm every necessary task with your team, then delegate and set a timeframe.
Articulate behavior expectations. “You have to have your boundaries and your guidelines so that team members know what they'll be held accountable for and what kind of support they'll get,” says Fran Halford, training consultant at Alliance Training and Consulting Inc., Overland Park, Kan., USA. “An understanding of different personality styles and how individual styles must adapt to other styles is a must.”
Outline consequences. If disruptive behavior occurs, respond promptly and consistently. “Set up how you're going to deal with it, in whatever way is appropriate for the culture,” Mr. Crow says. “An understanding of different personality styles and how individual styles must adapt to other styles is a must.”
Establish communication patterns. Make sure your team knows how to handle personality differences that might cause problems. “It's important to talk about potential conflicts up front so that the team doesn't come to a halt when they do happen,” Ms. Halford says.
Set rewards. Group rewards stimulate collaboration and a sense of investment in the project outcome. “You want to reward the whole team,” she says. “Make sure that you keep rewards consistent and whether you're going to give a public reward or in private, make sure everyone gets the message at the same time.”
Keep tabs. Even if your team members are working on individual tasks, establish a schedule for updates and collaboration, if necessary. “The best way to do that is to establish a clearly understood reporting system,” Ms. Halford says. “You can do it by forms, calendars, meetings, e-mail and phone calls. Establish how often the reports are sent, who they'll be given to.”
Good teamwork doesn't necessarily mean constant agreement. If the team is chartered with developing a new concept or product, dynamic interaction may help generate stronger ideas—and that means accepting and possibly even encouraging disagreement.
Project managers must also realize their projects may not be the only work a functional team member is expected to accomplish. As a result, too much “teamwork” may be counterproductive. First, project managers should determine which tasks can be carried out by individuals and which should be a collaborative effort. “People can work independently up to a certain point, depending on the project,” says Jim O'Donnell, director of instructional design at MSI Learning, San Francisco, Calif., USA. Later in a project, when individuals are building upon each other's work, you need more team cohesion. If project managers focus on teamwork too early, though, busy employees may be frustrated and consider the group work an annoyance, he says.
Good teamwork doesn't necessarily mean constant agreement. If the team is chartered with developing a new concept or product, dynamic interaction may help generate stronger ideas—and that means accepting and possibly even encouraging disagreement. If team members feel pressure to remain united or conform to a majority opinion, they are likely to succumb to group-think and only pursue options that don't upset anyone on the team. The range of ideas will be limited, and creativity will suffer.
Groups must be able to explore diverse ideas, then decide upon a unified course of action. “The difference between a high-performance team and a group of individual high performers is that the team is continually measuring the team success or failure, and they all take joint responsibility for that success or failure,” Mr. Robson says. “When they are not a team, the group of individuals feel little responsibility for anything other than their own functions.”
To get team members invested in the group, establish a reward structure that matches the desired outcome, Dr. Lee says. A team will fall apart if members are asked to cooperate but are rewarded based on individual performance. “Team-based reward is particularly crucial when team members are heavily interdependent on each other,” she says.
Mistake 3: Thinking all problems can be solved by talking them out.
Unless there's money in the budget to call in a professional therapist, project managers must resist the urge to have people discuss interpersonal conflicts. The technique fails more often than not, and, indeed, often exacerbates the problem, Dr. Lee says.
Interpersonal conflicts are different from the creative conflicts that lead to great ideas because they concentrate on personalities, not business.
Instead of reopening arguments, Mr. Robson recommends having the team list the problems, whether it's lack of an agenda or supplier issues. Then they can turn each problem into an action item by working out how to fix it and still bring the project in on time and within budget.
Project managers need not foster congeniality among the team members—the ability to articulate goals and the steps needed to reach them are more important. Savvy project managers are catalysts for group accomplishment, because they set the parameters for group behavior.
It's important to talk about potential conflicts up front so that the team doesn't come to a halt when they do happen.
—Fran Halford, Alliance Training and Consulting Inc., Overland Park, Kan., USA
Try to maintain a focus on the future. “When people are in severe conflict, [they] become present-focused and cannot see the long-term consequence of their current action,” Dr. Lee says. “Sponsors should encourage struggling teams to be cognizant of the long-term consequences.” Doing so can get people to direct their energy toward solving the problem at hand, rather than trying to fix perceived personality flaws of their team members.
No matter how leaders intervene, they must beware of picking sides, she says. If team members think the project manager is playing favorites, they may resent the entire project.
Everyone makes mistakes—but at least now you know what to look out for. PM
Ann C. Logue is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Ill., USA. She has written for Barron's, Compliance Week and Newsweek Japan.
PM NETWORK | AUGUST 2006 | WWW.PMI.ORG
AUGUST 2006 | PM NETWORK