Taking the Initiative
Knowing how and when to jump in to try to resolve a conflict takes practice and experience. It is not an easy call. Sometimes you may elect to stand back and let team members learn the hard way. People will learn from their mistakes; however, you cannot generally afford to do this if the project will suffer.
Most often, it is up to you to recognize a conflict situation and monitor it closely. If it is brought to you by a team member, stakeholder, or dropped in your lap, you'll have no choice but to get involved.
If you see conflict in the making, but it has not yet been brought to your attention, you have a few options. You can alter the schedule, task assignment, or other variables to ease the potential conflict without approaching either party directly.
If you have overheard hostile behavior between two parties or have gotten wind of it through your involvement in the project (or even casual walk throughs), you might simply switch assignments so that these team members will have little or no contact with one another. Anyone planning a party will do this if they are putting together a seating plan and so-and-so should not sit next to so-and-so.
The opposite approach is to bring combative parties together and force the issue, while closely monitoring the situation. Making two children who don't get along partners on the class project may bring out their common concerns, likes, and dislikes, and the conflict may simply disappear when they get to know each other. The same may occur with adults.
The manner in which you approach the conflict depends on numerous variables. When an entire team is unhappy with one person, you need to address its concerns. Talk to the members individually and see if they all have a similar assessment of the situation. A valuable team member with a not-so-valuable attitude might be a pain to work with, but still gets the job done. Therefore, you might try to set up a situation in which the antagonistic party does not interact as often or as closely with other team members.
Sometimes the team mentality becomes a mob mentality. A few people may have legitimate concerns, but others simply jumped onto the bandwagon and created a monster that doesn't really exist. People often direct their own tension and anger toward a scapegoat. A person may not be bothering anyone or causing any problems regarding the project, but the team perception is that the person is a problem.
Be wary of letting someone work off site just because the person is difficult to work with. Telecommuting appeals to a lot of workers who would love to forego the morning commute, and it might appear to others that you are rewarding antisocial behavior by letting this person work from home.
For example, in an office setting, Mary was working at a slower pace on a project. Janice, a team member, who never liked Mary personally, kept spreading the word that Mary was so slow that she was holding up production.
When the project eventually fell behind based on numerous factors, of which Mary's role was of minimal consequence, the opinion of many team members was that Mary was the cause of the project falling behind. They made her feel like she was to blame, when in reality the perception stemmed from one person's bias and was not a fair assessment of the situation. A simple story, but it illustrates two key points:
Groups of any type very often seek out a scapegoat when there is any deviation from the plan.
Groups often make judgments based on hearsay. In this case, all anyone really knew was what Janice said about Mary's work.
Once again, people need to be presented with the overall picture, not just one little slice of the pie. In this case, the team members needed to understand that there were many factors that produced the delays in the project — it was not just the fault of one person. Internal conflicts on a project can be dealt with in a number of ways, depending upon the unique circumstances surrounding the project and the participants. So how should you handle conflict?
Do your best to handle conflicts early on.
Take action that suits the particular project and situation.
Don't act out of anger, panic, or any other emotion. Weigh the conflict and make a decision based on facts.
When you make a decision, stick to it.
Make sure you listen to both arguments and address the issues on both sides before making your decision.