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Resolving Project Team Conflicts

~ By Gina Abudi

Two women having an argument in an office

Conflicts on project teams are a fact of life! Only on rare occasions do conflicts not arise - even on the smallest projects conflicts rear their ugly heads! It's human nature to have conflicts and it arises for any number of reasons, including:

  • Misunderstandings
  • Personality clashes
  • Disagreements about the right way to approach a problem
  • Egos

As a project manager, part of your responsibilities includes managing conflicts on the project team. The best way to manage a conflict is to ensure that the parties involved in the conflict are the ones developing the solution. You can't resolve it for them; they have to come to agreement on how to resolve the conflict themselves.

Bear in mind that sometimes a conflict cannot be resolved. For example, you may have two individuals on the project team that just are not going to get along no matter what - too much has happened between them. If you can't help them resolve their conflict, they must, at the very least, work together professionally for the good of the team and the project. Your job in this case, then is to help them figure out how they are going to get through this project being cordial and professional with each other.

Here are some suggestions to get you moving in the right direction.

  • Schedule a first meeting with the individuals who are having the conflict to discuss:
    • What is (are) the issue(s)? Get it all out on the table - let them vent
    • What are their perspectives?
    • Work with the parties to develop criteria for solutions to their conflict
    • Ask them to think about what they can do to get past the issue, or put it aside, based on the criteria for resolution they agreed to, in order to move forward with working together. What alternatives exist? This should happen overnight - let them sleep on it

Schedule at least two to four hours for the first meeting (depending on the extent of the issue). Explain during this meeting how the conflict between them is affecting the project and the team as a whole. Your goal is to get them to at least communicate with each other to get everything out in the open. You want to be sure they are really listening and hearing each other. Remember that confidentiality is key here. Remind them that what is discussed in the room does not leave the room. In some cases, I have found it helpful to meet with the parties individually to help get them thinking about how they might approach resolution of the conflict with the other individual.

Schedule a meeting for the following day to discuss how the conflict between the individuals might be resolved.

  • Ask them their ideas on how to move forward with resolving the issue - what did they think about the evening before, based on the criteria agreed to, that may help to resolve the conflict:
    • What alternatives can they come up with to work together effectively?
    • Can they come to consensus on any of the alternatives?

Your role here will be to get them talking to each other about their ideas to resolve the conflict and, ideally, coming to a consensus on how to resolve it. Remember - you cannot resolve it for them; they need to do so themselves. You are just facilitating the discussion for them. Help them work toward coming to consensus on resolving the conflict by asking questions, probing for details, etc. If one comes up with an idea, see how that idea might be tweaked so that it is acceptable to the other individual. How can the other add to the idea so that it might work for his/her also?

Remember also that sometimes consensus cannot be reached and the conflict is not able to be resolved, but you still need these individuals to work together. How might they do so? What do they need to work together professionally and cordially toward the successful conclusion of the project?

Once a consensus has been reached - or there is agreement on how to work together in spite of the conflict between them - review what was agreed and get their commitment that they will continue to work on the resolution of the conflict (as we know it won't go away immediately!) and abide by the plan they developed to resolve it.

I would recommend following up with them both individually and together to check on how things are going over the next few weeks and months, and provide them the support they need to continue to head in the right direction of an improved working relationship.


Gina Abudi has over 15 years consulting experience in a variety of areas, including project management, process management, leadership development, succession planning, high potential programmes, talent optimisation and development of strategic learning and development programmes. She is Partner/VP Strategic Solutions at Peak Performance Group, Inc. in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Gina blogs at www.GinaAbudi.com. She has been honoured by PMI as one of the Power 50 and has served as Chair of PMI's Global Corporate Council Leadership Team. She has presented at various conferences on topics ranging from general management and leadership topics to project management. Gina received her MBA from Simmons Graduate School of Management.

Copyright © 2009-2010 Gina Abudi. All rights reserved.


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