When Team Members Clash: Managing Conflict in a Team Environment

In a perfect project management world, all projects would be done on time, within scope, and under budget. But any practicing project manager will tell you the sad reality: things are not always going as planned. In that sense, it’s plausible that conflict will occur at some point in your project’s development. Taking appropriate preventative and corrective action against this conflict will grant your project the highest probability of success. However, we all know it’s not always that simple; managing conflict can be difficult.

In this article, we’ll explain some tips to alleviate potential project conflict.

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Embrace Conflict

Project management teams these days are often comprised of team members with a wide array of backgrounds, beliefs, skills, and experiences. Frequently, it’s this diversity that establishes a unique collaborative effort and promotes unrivaled productivity in a cross-functional environment. Unfortunately, these unique perspectives are also the typical root of conflict. Consequently, conflict will exist in nearly any team environment, but effectively identifying and managing this conflict in a timely fashion will lead to the highest probability of project success. As cited by Gregg D. Richie, one of our very own PMP® exam prep instructors, educating yourself about a team member’s personal background and weighing these factors in managerial decisions is a critical part of effective team management.

Cognitive vs. Affective Conflict

It’s important to note at this point the distinction between cognitive and affective conflict. The terms, coined by Allen C. Amason of Mississippi State University, are respectively representative of constructive and destructive (also referred to as functional and dysfunctional) conflict. Cognitive conflict is often aimed at issues, ideas, principles, or processes. This type of conflict is viewed as positive, and typically results in a solution to a problem, the development of conflict management skills for involved team members, and overall team cohesiveness. In contrast, affective conflict is aimed at people, emotions, or values, the diversity that makes cross-functional project teams so great. This type of conflict is correlated to personal conflict within the team, decreased morale, diversion from critical project objectives, and most rarely an agreeable solution.

As such, identifying the root of a conflict is of the utmost importance. In the initial steps of conflict management, your best friend is an active ear. Sitting down personally with all parties involved will give you a greater understanding of the underlying cause. Understand in this process that people may not share your view on the issue and make every attempt to be impartial. Avoid acting authoritative or defensive and, hard as it may be as a manager, do your best to hear all sides of the story before attempting to resolve the problem.

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Managing Conflict

Once the source of the issue has been established and all sources of information about the problem have been exhausted, we can move on to effectively managing the issue. The process is simple:

  1. Acknowledge conflict – Don’t disregard the issue at hand! Some project managers may regard the conflict as trivial, while others may have a tough time distinguishing it from the normal, healthy debate. Make sure to address the issue promptly, and identify it as such to each team member so that they recognize that it must be dealt with.
  2. Discuss impact – If the conflict has reached the point of being disruptive to a team environment (as it likely has), sit down as a team and discuss the effects the dispute is having on productivity and performance.
  3. Get everyone on board – In order to effectively resolve the issue, all team members, including those not directly involved in the conflict, must agree to cooperate on a resolution. It’s important that the team comes first in this regard.
  4. Clarify the issue at hand – Have each party involved in the dispute discuss their opinions regarding the conflict in an open, unbiased environment. This will allow each team member to see all sides of the story and make an informed decision with respect to corrective action.
  5. Take a vote – It’s your project, but it won’t get done if your team members aren’t on the same page. In some instances, especially those involving imminent deadlines or actually trivial disputes, an authoritative approach must be taken. But, if at all possible and without impeding project goals, allow your team to work as a team in order to create an effective solution.

Preventing Conflict

Of course, occasional conflict is to be expected. But here are a few tips developed to limit and mitigate conflict, especially affective conflict:

  • Conduct a “get to know one another” meeting– As mentioned, your project team likely consists of a diverse group of people that are just as often unfamiliar with each other. Conducting this meeting will familiarize your team members with each other and their personal backgrounds, and can potentially eliminate the underlying cause of an affective conflict issue.
  • Create an action plan early – Perhaps as a caveat of the risk assessment process, establish guidelines with your team members in addressing and handling conflicts as they occur. Involving them in this decision-making process not only provides a uniform awareness of these procedures, but also helps promote impartiality and collaborative solutions.
  • Utilize an “open door” policy – As it is ultimately the project manager’s responsibility to facilitate understanding between team members, being available as a resource is critical in effective conflict (and project) management. Make it known to your team members that you are available in the event of an issue, and assure them that their problems will be dealt with promptly and impartially.

Remember, conflict is inevitable and even sometimes healthy in project development. With the right planning, techniques, and management, mitigating dysfunctional conflicts is simple. Be there for your team, know each of them on a personal level, and above all, listen.

To learn more, check out our Managing Conflict PDU course. 

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Erin Aldridge, PMP, PMI-ACP, & CSPO
Director of Product Development at
Erin Aldridge, PMP, PMI-ACP, & CSPO