Project managers who want to resolve divisions among team members should keep three things in mind:

  • It takes plenty of time.
  • Every project will have personality conflicts.
  • Solving these conflicts—or taking the blame—is the project manager’s responsibility.

Those suggestions from IT professional Lynne Wardell, as well as other strategies for effective team leadership, came in response to a recent column on resolving team conflict by TechRepublic contributor Tom Mochal.

Mochal suggested that team members brainstorm problem areas that they think make the team less effective, rank the problems, and create a top-five list. Then, as a group, they can devise constructive and practical solutions. In the end, the team should vote on the best plan of action to get them back on track.

Is such an approach practical? These are some of the best ideas from Wardell and other TechRepublic members who discussed Mochal’s article.

Wardell’s suggestions
Wardell is the president and founder of the Haddon Group, an IT and project management consulting firm headquartered in Oakland, CA.

She said every project she’s been involved in has, to some degree, had the kind of problems Mochal described. She’s had plenty of time and opportunity to develop ways to turn around some very ugly team trauma. Wardell offered the following suggestions to draw out individual team members and open the lines of communication:

  • Find a way to break through individuals’ destructive feelings from previous experiences.
  • If a team member seems perturbed, find a way to address it head-on. Getting things out in the open helps minimize damage.
  • Acknowledge individual and group contributions. A big part of team challenges comes from individuals feeling underappreciated.
  • Ask for feedback from everyone frequently and try to use those suggestions.

Anecdotal evidence
As an example of her methods, Wardell cited a project that involved rolling out a new operating system to seven call centers and 3,200 users. Two business units and a technical infrastructure organization were involved in the project, and there was a tremendous amount of animosity among the groups from the start, she said.

“One business unit was known as a demanding resource hog, always overpromising, forcing the shared technical resources to jump to it to meet their demands,” Wardell said. “The other business unit was known as a slow moving goliath.”

The technical organization had a reputation for pushing poorly performing technology without consulting the business units on what they needed. When the three groups came together, the result was electrifying, according to Wardell. She said that, to take the deadly “high-voltage charge” out of the team, she put her tactics to use by:

  • Focusing on those with the strongest and loudest attitudes/opinions.
  • Having individual conversations with those people to find out the root cause for their strong negative viewpoints.
  • Acknowledging these frustrations in regular meetings with the team in a less heated, more constructive way—in essence, speaking for them.
  • Thanking these team members for their contributions in public so the team as a whole saw that it was a good thing to open up.
  • Thanking the team members via e-mails, copying their managers and their managers’ manager for recognition.
  • Coaching the team members on how to express their frustrations and differences of opinion in a more productive manner and holding them accountable for their delivery.
  • Keeping a regular check on these team members, and the rest of the team, to ensure that they didn’t backslide to their old habits and attitudes.

The project was completed on time and 50 percent under budget. But perhaps the most satisfying evidence of the project’s success is captured on film.

“I have a picture of two individuals who despised one another at the get-go with their arms around each other posing merrily at the celebration party,” she said.

Team-building troubles: Lack of maturity, professionalism
Not every TechRepublic member seemed to think Mochal’s or Wardell’s strategies were realistic. Most said team members’ lack of maturity or professionalism would create dysfunction and keep the tactics from working.

Jkingqm said Mochal’s method wouldn’t work because team members would never believe that “any comments made will stay inside the room,” as Mochal suggested. Jim Camp, a data analyst in Sunrise, FL, said that as long as money and promotions are part of the equation, people wouldn’t get along with one another.

“There are shortcomings in every member of the team, so how successful it is will be based on how the team sets aside their personal and selfish motives,” Camp said. “And when I say team, I most assuredly include management.”

DavidKS said that while a mature, competent person should be able to participate in Mochal’s team-building activity, mature and competent people are few and far between.

“Plus, if you have to have a meeting concerning work ethic or leadership ability, will those being questioned have the skill sets to handle group criticism, constructive or not?” DavidKS said. “What PM will hold a meeting concerning his or her lack of leadership?”

Same idea, different timing
DavidKS suggested that Mochal’s brainstorming meeting be held before a project is in full swing, perhaps during the planning stages. Team members could be asked about their previous project experiences and what went wrong with them. That way, the success of the current project isn’t at risk, he said. He also said that the meeting might work as part of a debriefing process when the project was complete, to garner tips for future projects.

Member thador said that, unfortunately, he has worked with a lot of “children” in his time, and even admits that he’s sometimes “whiny.” He said he believes that great teams are created more by chance than design.

“Managers are typically so focused on deadlines that team-building exercises are the last thing on the agenda and there are just some people who refuse compromise,” thador said.

Too much time on their hands
Larry Rice is an IT department director at Arc in Ventura, CA. The fourteen-year IT veteran suggested that if team members that other TechRepublic members described had the time to carry on this “junior high school approach to getting their work done,” perhaps a larger problem exists.

“Fire the worst one immediately and keep the rest of your people busy and accountable for what they are paid for,” Rice suggested.

Are great teams created by chance?

Do you believe, as thador said, that great teams are created more by chance than design? Have you seen evidence that great team leadership can turn a dull team to shining stars? Send us your anecdotes describing the specific team-building actions taken. If we publish your story, we’ll send you a TechRepublic coffee mug.