Project Manager Tips for Dealing with Conflict in Project Teams

Project teams are melting pots of professionals with varying opinions, personalities, working styles, and backgrounds—making conflict inevitable.

Not all conflict is bad, however. Technical or issue-focused conflicts can lead to collaborative, outside-the-box solutions if handled properly, noted Dr. Vittal Anantatmula PMP, a former project manager (PM) and professor for the College of Business at Western Carolina University.

Since both PMs and team members play an instrumental role in creating and resolving conflicts, here are four types of clashes that typically occur, as well as some techniques for turning them into positive outcomes. 

Problem-Solving Debates

As long as team members are being respectful and making progress, they should be encouraged to debate the pros and cons of various technical approaches, especially if it leads to a better solution, noted Jennifer Bridges, PMP, founder of education and training site PDUs2GO.

“You can’t allow yourself to get run over, however,” she cautioned. “The project leader should act like a Sherpa and let team members continue long enough to get all the issues and ideas on the table.”

Personality Clashes

Sometimes people just don’t like each other, or their egos clash. Since personality conflicts can lead to the dismissal of other opinions and the creation of hostile work environments, PMs need to be good at reading emotions and putting the kibosh on personal conflicts.

PMs need to set ground rules from the outset, Anantatmula advised. For example, problems or issues should be stated objectively, without assigning blame or mentioning names. Tech pros may need coaching or training to ensure that they raise issues effectively.

“Having team members share their personality styles can help avoid interpersonal conflicts,” Bridges explained. “The information lets you understand a professional’s frame of reference and when injecting their perspective into a discussion might be beneficial.”

Whether you like it or not, every project team needs a “Dr. Disaster,” she says. That’s her nickname for a team member who makes a habit of predicting when a proposed solution might hit a snag down the road. Don’t invite analytics into brainstorming or “controlled chaos” sessions, since that focus on detail may limit idea generation and creativity.

Task Conflicts

Using the Agile methodology can help project teams respond quickly to change; however, it can potentially result in scope creep and poorly defined roles, making it difficult for contributors to prioritize one set of tasks over another. Worse, team members may develop different interpretations of the project’s objectives or the quality of deliverables, which becomes fuel for conflict.

When task-related conflicts occur, contributors should ask for clarification, and PMs may need to go back to the basics by reviewing risks, issues or change requests with the project sponsor. The key is to recognize conflict early and apply the right resolution technique.

Encouraging open communications and increasing trust between project team members (and stakeholders) can eliminate task-related conflicts, which typically need to be resolved by negotiating a solution that is either completely or partially satisfactory to all parties. If that doesn’t work, the PM may need to use formal authority to resolve the conflict.

“Nothing goes as planned,” Bridges warned. “Keep project team conflicts from becoming personal by getting to the root of the problem fast and focusing everyone on the deliverables.”

Unequal Commitment and Involvement of Team Members

Successful team performance hinges on the commitment of individual members. Conflicts can arise when team members perceive that they are contributing more than others, or that workloads or resources are uneven. The ensuing debates often digress into a blame game.

Such arguments need to be recognized and treated as people-focused conflicts, Anantatmula noted. In addition to increasing transparency and communication, and encouraging team building, issuing team contracts or agreements at the beginning of a project can help increase involvement and commitment levels.

“PMs need to be directors during the initial stages of a project,” he said. “Once the groundwork is laid and things are going smoothly, their job changes from director to facilitator.”

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