Recognizing and Addressing Project Team Conflicts

Working in teams requires you to manage and address conflicts. It is essential that project managers recognize the two basic types of conflict: emotional and cognitive. Emotional conflict stems from personal interactions, while cognitive conflicts are based upon disagreements on matters of substantive value or impact on the project or organization. Resolution of cognitive conflict requires you and your team to focus on examining the premises, assumptions, observations and expectations of the team members.

Working through such problems can have the beneficial effect of strengthening the foundation of the resulting problem analysis as well as the resulting solution. I have found that many conflict situations that I am involved with encompass both emotional and cognitive elements.  Here’s a conflict situation from way back when that I would like to share.

Many years ago, I was managing a large IT systems development project where most of my development team was collocated in the same building area. I was walking down the office hallway one day when I noticed that one of the cube walls situated between the cubes of my project’s top two systems architects had come loose from the floor. The wall had moved over into one person’s cube and looked as though it would require a bit of repair. It was the end of a very busy day, so I made a mental note in my daily log to follow up about the mysterious moving cube wall the next morning.

The next morning when I was walking by the same area with my extra large cup of tea, I noticed that the traveling cube wall had moved yet again. Today, the wall was occupying space in the opposite team member’s cube. I decided to do a little investigating right after the morning project status meeting.  Turns out, I didn’t have to wait very long after the meeting to discover what was happening with the moving cube wall. As I exited the meeting and turned down the hallway, I was treated to a full exhibition of how the cube wall was moving back and forth. The systems architect in the space-limited cube was sitting on the floor, pushing the cube wall back into the other team member’s cube with his feet. I thought to myself “This isn’t something you see every day.”

What happened over the next few days was a conflict in motion. Each team member took turns shoving the cube wall into his teammate’s space. After observing the phenomenon for two days running, I decided to intervene. Calling both team members into my office, I asked them what was up with the cube wall. “He unbolted it and started this”, complained one team member. “It was right after the project approach meeting where my approach to solution technology and infrastructure was selected as the solution approach for the project.” “My approach was the better one”, replied the other team member. “Yours was chosen because you have worked here longer, not because it had any technical merit.” They continued to bicker until I interrupted them.

“Since you two are obviously in need of some togetherness”, I said, feeling very parental. ”Let me tell you what we are going to do. The moving cube wall will be removed and the two of you can share the office space for a time to see if you can work out your differences.” And that’s exactly what happened. By confronting the problem and offering up a compromise solution where each team member gave up their private space for a time, I felt like the essence of this particular conflict was being dealt with. The good news is that after a few days, the team member’s differences were resolved and they asked me to put their cubes back the way they were. The missing cube wall was reinstalled (and bolted down with a few extra bolts) the following week.

Telling you this story of conflict in my project team was prompted from a great article I just read.  It’s part of Learning Tree’s “Management Insights” series and focuses on ways to motivate your technical teams.  Check it out and tell me what you think!

Happy motivating and happy conflict resolution if and when it is needed!

Susan Weese

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