Project Management Institute

Team spirit



World-class project managers can deploy sophisticated strategies, organize scarce resources and excel under tight deadlines. But possessing the right skills doesn't mean much if they can't build a cohesive team.

“A project manager isn't just there to run a Gantt chart,” says Gary Furlong, partner at Agree Dispute Resolution, a consulting firm in Dundas, Ontario, Canada. “As a project manager, you must get things done through other people. That's the definition of the role.”

However, galvanizing the troops requires a project manager to act simultaneously as army sergeant and amateur psychologist—a no-nonsense leader with an iron fist and a silver tongue.

Failure to create collaborative teams can have a disastrous impact on a work force's morale and an organization's bottom line.

“There are four costs of conflict: time, energy, money and reputation,” says Neil Denny, author of Conversational Riffs: Creating Meaning out of Conflict [Sunmakers, 2010]. “When we encounter conflict in organizations, we expend massive resources under all of these headings, which leads to incompetent teamwork.”

The group is often able to identify for itself behaviors that assisted conflict resolution, such as listening to others, not talking over people, not rushing to conclusions and asking questions.

—Neil Denny, The Wilsher Group, Monkton Combe, Bath, Avon, England



To prevent such losses, project managers who undergo training can become true leaders, capable of clearing up employee misunderstandings, more effectively handling difficult team members, negotiating sensitive issues, assigning responsibilities and holding people accountable.

Lesson One: Start with communication skills.

“Typically, team members are so worried about staying positive that they avoid difficult or crucial conversations,” Mr. Furlong says.

When something unpleasant rears its head, many team members aren't prepared. They get upset and often take an adversarial approach. Conversations to deal with the problem tend to go badly.

One useful tool is reality testing. This is often used by mediators to get team members to question and challenge their perception of the problem or the position they are taking. Training in this technique helps people adjust their position and become more flexible.

“Some training in questioning skills that engage people in problem solving, along with effective listening and reality testing can minimize the adversarial approach and keep everyone working together,” he adds.

Lesson Two: Brainstorm behaviors.

Group brainstorming sessions can explore the kinds of behavior that help team members achieve greater collaboration.

In workshops, Mr. Denny has project managers and team members identify obstacles or challenges they are facing. Next, he forms mixed teams that select one challenge and discuss it for 10 minutes.

“When it comes to the debrief, the group is asked questions such as, ‘How did you approach and debate the issue?' rather than concentrating on the specific issue itself. This focuses on the ‘meta-conversation’ or ‘how we talk about what we are talking about,’” he explains.

As a result, “the group is often able to identify for itself behaviors that assisted conflict resolution, such as listening to others, not talking over people, not rushing to conclusions or solutions and asking questions,” says Mr. Denny, who also serves as an associate at the training and coaching consultancy The Wilsher Group in Monkton Combe, Bath, Avon, England.

Training can go one step further to “align and harmonize everyone's expectations with a team-developed set of team values or ground rules,” Mr. Furlong says.

By doing so, project managers can get their team members “on the same page and define what everyone means by respectful behavior, as well as a clear process for how issues will be resolved,” he adds.

Lesson Three: Break out the board games.

Lessons on effective listening and group brainstorming sessions often get tense. Project professionals can lighten the mood by employing some fun-filled techniques to convey similar messages.

“There's a wide range of off-the-shelf games available that concentrate on cooperation and cooperative behaviors,” Mr. Denny says.

A particular favorite of his is Pandemic by Z-Man Games, which has easy-to-grasp rules in which team members work together to save the human race from deadly diseases.

To make the most of board games, “leave teams to read through the rules themselves,” Mr. Denny suggests. “Even then there's the need for teams to collaborate when deciding who is going to read and explain the rules. See who takes the lead. How are queries dealt with and resolved? How does the team commit to learning together?”


Collaboration training should “focus on the relationship-building and effective-communication part of what it takes to get people working together effectively,” says Shoshana Faire, director of Professional Facilitators International, a conflict resolution consultancy and coaching firm in Sydney, Australia. She's also coauthor of Everyone Can Win: How to Resolve Conflict, now in its second edition [Simon & Schuster, 2006].

Project managers shouldn't view team-building training as a panacea, though—or assume that because they've participated in a group session that teamwork will come easily.

In fact, “collaboration is messy,” warns Tammy Lenski, Ed.D., founder and principal of the conflict resolution consultancy Tammy Lenski LLC in Peterborough, New Hampshire, USA. “It requires the right amount of space for people to make mistakes and for the organization to be forgiving of those mistakes.”


It can be a bitter pill to swallow, but sometimes project managers themselves are inadvertently contributing to the friction between feuding teammates.

“Project managers have to learn how to manage their own emotions and reactions to be able to best help others in tense moments,” says Tammy Lenski, Ed.D., Tammy Lenski LLC, Peterborough, New Hampshire, USA. “They have to be able to maintain their own balance in order to help others.”

Some project professionals are scheduling masters or Agile whizzes— but just don't have the knack for understanding team dynamics.

Most people can develop team-building competencies with the right training, though, attests Shoshana Faire, Professional Facilitators International, Sydney, Australia. “You can learn the skills for emotional intelligence,” she says.

That's provided, of course, you have patience, an eagerness to be trained— and a willingness to step outside your comfort zone.

Mr. Denny goes so far as to suggest that some friction is better than none in the workplace. “We need to give permission for conflict to be spoken about so that team members can provide honest feedback,” he states.

And that's where a trainer, mediator or third-party facilitator comes in handy. In addition to training project managers how to foster collaboration, consultants can also create a safe place for project team members to air grievances.

“I don't want to imply that mediators don't have their own baggage,” Dr. Lenski says. “But mediators don't have baggage associated with your particular problem or the people involved—a key factor in why mediation can be so useful. They bring a fresh set of ears and eyes. Plus, skilled organizational mediators understand how the human brain works and how conflict is caused in systems.”

An outside perspective could be just what's needed to smooth tensions.

“When people begin shutting off from each other and it gets a bit too emotional, a mediator can get a conversation happening between two people,” Ms. Faire says.

Project managers can have the methodologies down pat, but without a cohesive team, a project won't meet its goals. Team-building training can help manage the always-complicated people side of projects. PM

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