Project Management

Dealing with a secretive, distant team member

Team members who withhold information from their colleagues or speak ill of the company they're working for can disrupt projects, cause tension, and make the team fall behind. Here are some ways to resolve the conflict.


Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice on how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on a real-life situation. He then offers a solution, using practical project management techniques.

Question
I am a project manager for multiple software project development teams. In the recent economic downturn, I had to lower our headcount and released a very popular contractor. I have an employee (let’s call him “Jim”) who is a combination analyst/team leader and is a very good friend of the contractor who was let go.
Jim has endeared himself to the client during the past year and has tried to keep functional knowledge to himself. He is now speaking negatively about the company and is even demanding to work from home. He seems to resent working with me, and we have periodic conflict situations. Unfortunately, he cannot be easily replaced, and his project only has a few months to go before it ends. Any suggestions on how to handle this situation would be greatly appreciated.

AW

Answer
I had a project manager once tell me that their job would be much easier if they did not have to deal with people. Some of the biggest challenges on a project are not managing scope or risk but effectively managing and working with people.

On the surface, this looks like a situation where project management processes don’t come into play. It looks like pure people management. Of course, a project manager must be able to do both.

Assess and manage project impact
First, you must determine how Jim’s behavior is affecting the project. I assume the behavior is actually causing a problem today or else you are concerned about a future risk to the project. After determining Jim's impact on the project, you can invoke the appropriate project management response. Let’s look at a couple of examples:
  • If Jim is missing his due dates, you may need to invoke issues management. In this case, you identify the problem, look for resolution, and then discuss the issue with your sponsor and your manager and ask for their assistance in choosing the best response.
    Resolving the issue will mean engaging Jim to find out why he’s missing deadlines. Factual examples of his missed deadlines will also help you if you have to deal with this later as a performance problem.
  • If Jim is keeping knowledge to himself, you have a definite project risk, especially since there is a chance he will leave before the project is completed. If he decides to leave, there is also a risk that a proper transition will not occur because information is not flowing through the team.
    To mitigate the risk, you might include project activities that force some cross-training, and you could also assign specific deliverables to document the pieces of knowledge that Jim has that others need to know. If Jim does not complete these activities successfully, consider it as evidence of a potential performance problem.

Discuss the situation with Jim
While managing the effect on the project, you should have a frank performance discussion with Jim that covers your perceptions of his performance level. It’s important that you and he try to get into a productive discussion about the cause of the problems. If you know the causes of Jim's problems, you might be able to help fix them.

In many organizations, the project manager is mostly charged with the management of the project, so a functional manager may be responsible for overall people performance. If that is true of your organization, then the functional manager will need to discuss the problem with Jim and will likely deal with any problems with him going forward.

If there is personal animosity between you and Jim, having a direct conversation can be very difficult and may require some prior coaching from the functional manager or from Human Resources. If the problem stems from releasing the contractor, then there is not much that can be done except to explain the reasons. However, you may discover that another issue is causing the behavior problem, and you may be able to resolve the problem at this point.

For example, Jim may be afraid that he too may be laid off, which may lead to his belief that he must become as valuable as possible, even if that means hoarding knowledge.

Get advice from the experts
If you cannot resolve the problem through project management or people management processes, then I think you need to go to your Human Resources (HR) department and get their advice. Again, in your organization, this may require you to go through a functional manager first. HR is probably going to be interested in your perspective, but they will also want facts, such as when Jim has missed his due date(s), what negative comments were made and to whom, etc.

When you engage your HR staff, you must be prepared to follow their advice. They may talk to Jim directly, or they may work in concert with you and the functional manager. If the situation cannot be resolved, and if there is a project impact, HR may recommend that Jim be put on a performance plan and, ultimately, may suggest that he be fired. At that point, however, it will not be your doing, but choices that Jim chooses to make that decide his fate at the company.

Summary
First, understand the impact of the team member's problem behavior on the project, and try to utilize project management procedures to resolve the problems.

Second, deal with the performance using people-management techniques. This may be your responsibility, or you may have functional managers to call upon for help.

Lastly, call in the professionals from your Human Resources Department. They deal with problem people every day and should have some processes to put into place to resolve the situation one way or another. If you do call in HR, deal with the problem objectively and unemotionally, and follow their guidance exactly. They are the experts in performance management.

In any case, you must do something. Even if your project limps along and ends successfully, Jim will be on another company project next. If you do not attempt to resolve the problem, the behavior will only burden another project manager in the future.

How have you dealt with “Jim”?
Have you had a sullen, secretive project member who makes it difficult to complete projects? Do they drive a wedge between project members? How have you dealt with such workers? Post your comments below.

 

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