Project Conflict Management

Conflict is inevitable in a team environment.  Project teams bring together a variety of personality and skills, each perceiving tasks and actions is in different ways. This diversity is what gives the team depth and broad range of skills required to successfully achieve the project objectives. Yet, this diversity will inevitably bring conflicts ranging from simple disagreements on task details to fundamental personality clashes. 

A project manager's job is to bring a team together to accomplish a defined goal. In the course of persuing the goal, conflict is inevitable.  Conflict is the discrepancy between what is the perceived reality of the situation and what the is seen as the ideal.

The key for good Project Management is to recognize that conflicts will occur between:

  • Team members
  • Team members and the Project Manager
  • Project Manager and the project sponsor
  • Project sponsors and the team members

A great deal of this conflict is actually healthy and will allow participants to expand their understanding of issues and tasks. By encouraging consensus, Project Managers can increase buy-in from the client and team members.

Project Managers must consider two aspects of any conflict to successfully mange conflict:

  • The affect of conflict on the personal relationship between participants
  • The affect conflict will have on the tasks being performed on the project

In order to foster strong relationships between participants and promote the continued progress toward project objectives, Project Managers will need to employ a variety of conflict resolution styles. Managers will also need to recognize the type of style other project participants are employing in order to identify the common ground between individuals involved in a conflict. Each style has its time and place, but in most cases the ultimate goal is to achieve a consensus on issues.

Common Causes of Project Conflict

Personality Conflict (Team Member to Team Member)

These conflicts range from minor differences that reduce team members' ability to operate efficiently together, to major conflicts that leave team members' unable to work together on the same project (subsequently affecting all team members).  Resolution should be sought swiftly and conducted privately if possible.

  • Minor Conflict  - Counsel team members to find common ground and work to build a consensus for the best remedy to the problem.

  • Moderate Conflict  -  Counsel team members, and if necessary, separate team members to the degree possible.

  • Major Conflict -If the project size permits; the manger may completely separate the team members in conflict.  If this approach is not realistic, it may be necessary to remove one of the team members.

In all cases it is important to recognize the potential impact of personality conflicts.  You may not empathize with the your team members' differences, but their differences can often have a dramatic effect on performance.  Always seek to facilitate discussion on conflicts and find a solution that strikes the balance between the project's goals and the personal needs of the team members.

Personality Conflict (Team Member to Client)

The only difference in dealing with team member conflicts when client personnel are involved is that there is less autonomy in the solution formulation process. 

  • If the Project Manager has a sufficiently strong relationship with the client personnel involved it may be appropriate to discuss the issue fully and reach a consensus with the involved parties.
  • If the appropriate relationship does not exists with the client personnel, or the conflict is too serious for a simple consensus resolution, the Manager will need to either:
    • Influence the troubled team member to accommodate the client representative(s) in the interest of the project objectives (bad approach for maintaining team member’s satisfaction).
    • Find tasks for the team member that will separate the two parties.  (Evaluate whether this approach will satisfy the client as well)
    • In more serious cases it may be necessary to remove the team member from the project.
    • Work with the appropriate client management representative(s) to create an appropriate resolution

Conflicts with client personnel can easily weaken Company's relationship with the client, and these conflicts should be resolved swiftly and diplomatically.  It is a judgment call for Project Managers as to whether they seek to resolve these conflicts through direct discussion with the client, or working to simply make adjustments to the team.  It entirely depends on the type of relationship that Company (specifically the Project Manager) has with the troubled client personnel and related client management personnel.  As with any conflict situation, do not let the situation fester and grow into an increasingly intense problem.

Personality Conflict (Project Manager to Client)

Part of a Project Manager’s relationship with the client may involve a certain level of conflict, but this conflict should never be more than simple disagreements upon which the Project Manager quickly seeks to build a consensus resolution.  Be conscious to never leave meetings or discussions without reaching at least an initial level of consensus.

Part of the Project Manger’s job is to deliver messages that are painful in nature.  Seek to reduce conflict, but accept that it will occur and deliver appropriate responses.  Typically, preparing oneself with all of the appropriate information will minimize most conflict.  Avoiding all conflict will ultimately result in overall project failure and often litigation.

One of the primary reasons for this handbook is to provide Project Managers with the tools and techniques necessary to ensure project success.  Conflicts with clients often arise because of “surprises” associated with scope, time, and money.  Being prepared with comprehensive information and consistently communicating serves as the foundation for addressing personality conflicts with client/management personnel.  A well-run project reduces personality conflicts to childish annoyances.  Enforcing solid project management standards provides the Project Manager the moral high ground from which to effectively operate. 

Finally, the role of a Project Manager is to buffer Company personnel from aberrant client personnel.  Often this role requires a high-level of tolerance and level-headedness.  Always deliver difficult messages, but be prepared with substantiation for your case.  Maintain a thick skin, but do not accept “abuse”.  If you inform an “abusive” client representative to stop and they do not, take your case to their superior and provide substantiation for your position.  If this action does not render a successful conclusion, do not hesitate to ask for assistance from other Company management personnel.  Accept that some level of conflict is inevitable, but again; do not accept “abuse”.

Poor Performance (Company Team Member)

The resolutions put forth below for dealing with poor performance assume that the team member involved actually has the capacity to perform at higher level.  Thus, the Project Manager must seek to identify the factors contributing to the performance gap, and act quickly to address these factors.

  • Identify factors contributing to poor performance.  Possible sources include:
    • Outside personal issues
    • Team conflicts
    • Dissatisfaction with role
    • Substance abuse
    • Chronic illness
  • Discuss performance and potential factors with the troubled team member
  • Formulate a plan for addressing the performance gap
  • Monitor the team member, and update status of the issue(s) with the team member.

If poor performance persists, remove the individual from the role that they are not successfully performing.  If their performance is specific to the tasks they currently find challenging, then work to have them assigned to projects and tasks that they have demonstrated a capacity to perform.  However, if the individual is fundamentally ill suited for consulting tasks, it is the Project Manager’s responsibility to advise the team member and the company leadership that the individual is not suited for work at Company.

Poor Performance (Client Team Member)

When client team members exhibit poor performance, Company Project Managers will likely not have the authority to investigate the contributing factors or make the appropriate recommendations to the individuals.  However, do not allow the poor performance of a client team member to affect the project time line without immediately bringing the issue to the client sponsor’s attention.

In order to prepare for discussions with the client sponsor, the Project Manager must compile a performance log with specific examples of the problematic behavior.  It is not only important to document the aberrant behavior, it is also important to document any attempts at rectification.  Being thoroughly prepared before any formal discussions with the client project sponsor increases the likelihood of an acceptable solution to the situation.

  • If factors are within the control of the Project Manager, make adjustments as necessary and continue to monitor the team member’s performance.
  • If factors are not within the Project Manager’s control, refer the issue to the appropriate client management personnel and mutually discuss the issue.  Work to formulate a solution that will not disrupt the project time line.
  • If the troubled individual consistently performs inadequately even after addressing the contributing factors, then it will be necessary to remove the individual from the project. 
  • Project Managers should make it clear to the client project sponsors that Company cannot complete the project as agreed without the removal of the individual.

Dating Between Team Members

Company has no official policy on “dating” within the company, but dating between project members/sponsors within the project environment can be extremely problematic.  The problems are particularly acute when one involved party has authority over the other.  From the perspective of the other team members, dating can lead to questions of favoritism.  From the perspective of the Project Manager, dating can lead to friction in the case of relationship termination.  Project Managers should make it clear that dating is forbidden between team members, else the stability and integrity of the team will likely be compromised.

  • Avoid staffing any Company personnel on the same project when those individuals are involved in a relationship.
  • Forbid dating of team member from the outset of the project.  (Include a statement on “Dating” in the Project Policy and Procedure database)
  • For team members that break this rule, meet with the privately to discuss the issue and formulate a reprimand as appropriate.
  • Remove team member from position of authority when that individual is dating subordinate team member.