The mechanics of keeping a project moving can be hard enough—timing, budgets, requirements, deliverables. Add a team to the mix, and that means every once in a while you’ll face conflicting ideas, opinions, or worse, personalities. Dealing with disagreements between your team and your stakeholders is one thing, but having to deal with in-fighting on your team can be very stressful, upsetting, and worst of all, difficult to manage. But with the use of your natural problem-solving instinct and some basic conflict resolution skills, you can tackle any disagreement like a pro.
Identify the Issue Head On
As the project manager, it’s your job to call out issues. If you happen to see (or hear about) an issue within your team, be sure to address it head on. If it’s between two people, pull them aside and explain the issue you’re seeing. If tensions are running high, bring it up to them and explain the impacts of the situation. Often times, when you explain to someone that they are creating larger issues within a team, they will take a step back. Other times it’s not that easy! If that person seems to be really heated, give him or her some time to calm down. That might mean you put things aside for a few hours, or even a day. The best thing you can do is mention the issue and bring everyone back together to discuss the issue and impacts when tempers are calm.
Talk and Listen
When you’ve got everyone calm, pull the involved parties (whether it’s a just a couple people or the whole team) together for a larger conversation. As the project leader, it’s your job to establish that you’re trying to resolve the issue not only for everyone to he happy and heard, but for the sake of the project. People often do not realize that their personal opinions and emotions can get in the way of good work. When that happens, work and working relationships fail. That’s a recipe for disaster, so focus on project success.
Before you introduce the issue in the meeting, establish some ground rules for your meeting:
1. The issue ends now. We’re not holding grudges or going back on decisions.
This is important. You want the team to know that the issue has ended and that you’re in this meeting to end it together. Any additional finger pointing or arguing will only make the issue worse and drag out the outcome you want and need.
2. Everyone will have a chance to speak.
It’s critical to let everyone know that the environment of this meeting is a positive one where everyone will have a chance to be heard. If one person feels slighted, you will feel that later on. So do your best to moderate the meeting and make sure that all parties have a chance to speak up.
3. Everyone will be heard.
You’ll never be able to ensure that people are listening, but you sure can ask them to. If you create an atmosphere where all opinions are to be heard out, you’ll most likely get to healthy conversation sooner. In order to do this, you might need to moderate. Don’t let one person dominate the conversation, and don’t let anyone cut someone else off. At the same time, don’t let anyone hide from the issue. Some people are prone to avoid issues, and that’s not always okay. You won’t want to force someone to speak up, but you can use the “speak now or forever hold your peace” rule in meetings like this if you’ve given everyone a chance to speak their mind.
4. We will come to a resolution as a team.
Everyone must know that the point of the meeting is to come to a solution—together. Through the conversation, you can let people vent as needed, but also be sure to let them know that each comment should point toward a workable solution. This isn’t a venue to complain, it’s a place to fix an issue and rebuild your team bond.
Watch Your Language
Remember, the language that you use in this meeting will greatly impact the outcomes of the interactions you have with your team not only in this meeting, but also after the meeting. Disagreements can certainly ruin relationships and deplete trust. If you use inclusive language and let the team know that you are invested in resolving the issue together, you’ll rebuild the trust that was lost and motivate the team to work together. In the end, as the project manager, you want to maintain a level of positivity and respect on the team. That can only be accomplished by urging your team to help with the resolution.
Discover and Discuss Solutions
It won’t be easy to come to a single solution that will work for all affected parties. As the moderator/project manager, it’s in your best interest to guide the conversation to a place where all involved parties can identify and discuss possible solutions. If it’s a personal issue between two people, it might be best to have them sort it out on their own. If it’s an issue that is impacting a larger group, transition the meeting from grievances to solutions when it feels comfortable. If you’re not hearing any solutions in comments, start to identify potential pathways on your own. if no one is liking those ideas, ask for alternatives. If there are too many ideas to keep track of them, start listing them in a collaborative document or on a whiteboard. In this case, take a quick vote by show of hands might help—but remember, you will still need to address the people who disagree with the solution. If that happens, ask why they’re in disagreement and ask them to provide alternatives.
In many cases, you are probably going to have to make a judgment call and assert your authority as the team lead. This can be really scary, because it puts the decision on your shoulders and you may risk losing the trust and respect of a team member. So, if you do have to make a decision that doesn’t have the full backing of your team or involved parties, be sure to hear them out. Follow-up one-on-one meetings can help you to understand personal points of view and vice versa. The last thing you want to do is destroy a relationship you built over time, so pay attention to the details and follow up.
Implement Changes and Follow-up
Once a decision is made, make it so. Don’t hesitate to put a plan in place and follow-up with the team about how you’ll proceed. Maybe you’ll distribute meeting notes, maybe you’ll send an email—whatever you do, make sure your follow-up communication and action plan are clear and concise. And always leave your door open for follow-on conversations.
Just because you’ve mandated a solution it doesn’t mean that it will work, so don’t forget to follow-up on the issue. This can be through one-on-one conversations, messages, or even meetings. No matter what you do, check in on progress and call out additional issues or make adjustments as you see fit. As the project manager, you need to ensure that the issue is actually resolved—not just swept under the carpet.
Great Tips! But what if I’m a part of the problem?
It happens! Project managers can often get caught up in project disagreements. It’s tough to play by the rules above if you’re the one who is involved or affected. The best thing you can do is stay calm and try to resolve the issue. If the issue is big and requires further discussion, you should ask someone to come in and moderate the conversation. This could be another project manager or team member. You’re better off not bringing in a manager, because the team will feel like you’re calling in the big guns to save your cause. Keep the playing field level and all will be resolved quickly—and with far less doubt or emotion. That said, not every argument is suited for a PM to address. If something is really toxic, don’t be afraid to escalate the issue. Managers and Human Resources departments are put in place to help you. Remember, just because you’re the project manager, it doesn’t mean that you can—or should—do everything. Know when you can’t handle a situation and ask for help. You’ll be happy you did.
Disagreement —> Agreement
Few projects happen without at least a bit of disagreement. Sometimes it’s healthy and easily resolved, other times it goes to a bad place. As a good project manager, you’ll be able to assess a situation and figure out the best path to turning a disagreement into a conversation that ends in a positive outcome. Use your great communication skills, leadership instinct, and the tips above, and you’ll be able to conquer the most difficult situations.