Learning to play well together: Negotiating personality conflicts

Any manager whose team is getting work done has achieved a degree of harmony between staffers. But is your group firing on all cylinders? Here are some guidelines for smoothing over conflicts between team members and knowing when to step in.

At one time or another in our professional careers, most of us have had to deal with someone that we just couldn’t get along with. Despite the best of intentions and an all-out effort, antagonism and conflict seemed to rule. Fortunately, such situations seem few and far between.

As a manager, however, you’ve probably found that these situations surface more frequently among the people who work for you than they do in your own experience. Your leadership role may require you to get involved, despite your disinclination to do so. How do you negotiate peace between team members in personality conflict?

Types of personality conflict
There are many types of personality conflict. Often, such conflicts are based on insignificant personality features that don’t really affect an employee’s professional capacity at all. Excessive good humor can be a balm to some, an excruciating irritant to others. Conversely, an extremely serious demeanor can inspire at times and become tiresome at other times. Some of your colleagues may believe that we possess too much of one trait and not enough of another.

Normally, we tune out these things, and rightly so. But there are occasions when a particular combination of personalities settles into a high-gain loop, the irritation between two people becomes friction, and the friction becomes conflict.

This state of affairs can have a number of consequences, none of them good.

Frustration: In many such conflicts, one party has no real problem with the other, but seems to be on the receiving end of a lot of bad will. In some instances, the exasperated team member will make attempts at positive connection, and be rebuffed, but in any case, frustration results.

Lack of cooperation: When two team members don’t get along, they tend to exert a bare minimum of effort on one another’s behalf. This has a negative effect on your project, as well as on team morale.

Intimidation: If one of the two team members is senior to the other, or if one is a dominant or aggressive personality and the other one isn’t, then the more reserved of the two may be experiencing intimidation, and this has a distinctly negative effect on that player’s work.

Energy cost: Whether the conflict is passive or overt, it is draining on both parties. To what degree this affects work depends on the parties involved and the intensity of the conflict. But whatever the degree, it’s a wasteful drain of energy on your team.

Lost opportunity: When two team members are in chronic conflict, synergy is diminished rather than encouraged. In most development shops today, that synergy is not a luxury: it’s a necessity. The conflict diminishes the participants and discourages the rest of the team. Opportunity for dynamic interaction is lost.

A threat to productivity
You have concern for the well being of the team members involved, of course, but as a manager your accountability in the conflict is its effect on team productivity. When considering whether you should intervene, this is your first priority. If the conflict has reached a point where the performance of either team member is suffering, or the conflict is causing any other team member to have productivity issues, then you should take action.

A threat to morale
Sometimes a personality conflict can become overt, even openly acrimonious—yet the players themselves still perform at their normal levels. However, you must look closely to see if the battle has cast a pall over the project team in any way. Often, the sarcasm and cutting remarks that sometimes accompany personal discord can bother other team members, and this irritation can be cumulative. If the conflict is affecting team morale, then you should step in.

You’ve undoubtedly learned that, as a manager, you can’t change people. The best you can do in this situation, short of sitting people down and reading them the Riot Act (a last resort), is to distance them, or at least lessen the tension created by proximity. Here are some possible courses you can take.

Create a programming trio
If you’ve decided you should act to defuse the conflict, one important question is how closely the conflicting team members work. Do they share tasks, or do you really need them to (and fear the worst if you pair them)? If so, this is the trickiest of situations you may deal with.

One of the best things you can do, if the two players must work together, is to introduce a third team member, preferably one with some seniority. It’s one thing to sit at opposite ends of the table in a team meeting, but when people must work face-to-face for significant portions of the workday, a personality conflict can escalate to apocalyptic proportions. The calming influence of a benevolent third party, particularly one with a bit of seniority, can dampen any impulses toward acrimony, and encourage your players to be on their best behavior—or better behavior, at any rate.

Try multimodal communication
Suppose you need your players to work together, but you are certain that close proximity will make life unbearable for them and everybody else. If this is the case, consider implementing digital communications between them. We live in an age when it’s possible to sit eight feet away from a colleague and never speak, while communicating all day long through e-mail.

Issue instructions that this is how you wish your team members to handle their project work, if you think it will lessen tensions. The given reason can be your need to have every step of their project tasks thoroughly documented. And, to keep it clean, instruct them to copy all communications either to you or an appropriate lieutenant. This will have the effect of giving each party an opportunity to think twice at every instance of communication.

Go public
This is the very best solution, for your warring parties and the group at large, if it is possible. The best way to disarm such a conflict is to shine some good-natured light on it. In your particular situation, is it possible, in a group meeting or some other casual public forum, to make a good-natured joke about the feud, one that does not belittle either party but makes it clear that you (and everyone else) are very aware of it? Handled correctly, such public exposure may result in a couple of sheepish grins, and a realization that maybe we’ve carried this a little too far….

Certainly, the acknowledgment of everyone's awareness of this private tension may give them pause when the next opportunity for conflict arises. .

When all else fails
Read 'em the Riot Act in full and don’t spare the bold and italics. You are, finally, the boss.



Scott Robinson is a 20-year IT veteran with extensive experience in business intelligence and systems integration. An enterprise architect with a background in social psychology, he frequently consults and lectures on analytics, business intelligence...

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