Personal relationships can damage project team effectiveness

In this Q and A column, Tom Mochal advises a project manager on how to keep his divorce from a team member from threatening the rest of the team and the project.

TechRepublic columnist Tom Mochal receives dozens of e-mails each week from members with questions about project management problems. He shares his tips on a host of project management issues in this Q&A format.

I'm currently project manager for a large, highly visible project. My wife is on the team, as well. We are now in the process of going through a divorce, which is a very strange and stressful situation. She reports to me for the project, and we're both friends with everyone on the team. The entire team, including the client side, is feeling the stress of our divorce.

Although our lives are a mess right now, the project has not yet been directly affected. How should I deal with this? Should I tell the team that the project will be okay, or should I just let it go and assume it's nobody’s business but ours?

It's easy to give advice on how to manage issue, scope, quality, etc. Theoretically, if the project was affected by your divorce proceedings, it might be appropriate to raise an issue or a risk. However, from a practical standpoint, that’s not going to work. It would be hard for you to raise a risk and have the team and client dissect how the personal situation might be affecting the project. It’s difficult to give specific advice on this situation since I have very little background to go on. In spite of that limitation, let me go on, in case others might find themselves in similar situations in the future.

First I want to validate the facts with you. You said that the project was not directly affected—so far. This implies to me that there is a risk that the situation might result in a problem going forward. You also said that the stress of the divorce is affecting the entire team. You did not say what the extent of the stress was, but I assume it is not insignificant, since you made a point of mentioning it.

Normal projects already have built-in stress levels
As we all know, it is not uncommon for there to be personnel concerns on a project. Sometimes people don’t get along. Sometimes the stress of long hours will cause normally friendly people to bicker. In fact, I heard a behavioral consultant say once that there should always be a little conflict to at least show that people had some emotional attachment to what they were doing. (I’m not sure I agree with that, but he thought he knew what he was talking about.)

Your situation is different because of the very personal nature of the situation. Another consultant once said that people will take advice from just about anyone, except their spouses. In many companies, married couples are prohibited from working for, or with, each other because of the potential problems that can result when personal and business lives are intertwined. Maintaining a good working relationship is hard enough when the personal side is fine. It can be distracting and disastrous when the relationship is not well.

Your question was whether you should address the situation with the team or just assume it is none of their business. Unfortunately, it sounds like you have made it their business. You pointed out that the stress of the relationship is being felt by the entire team. This is clearly unacceptable in my opinion.

A better alternative
You asked whether you should address this with the team or try to keep the problems under control. I would recommend a third alternative: One of you needs to leave the team and take an assignment somewhere else. Since you said that the team chemistry has been damaged, I am a little surprised that your manager or sponsor has not forced a change already.

Moving one of you would probably have an adverse short-term impact on the project, and you would need to understand what that impact was. There is probably a point where the pain of replacing one of you is greater that the pain of continuing to work together, but that is a line your team would need to determine.

When a personal relationship affects a project, as this relationship has, it suddenly becomes everyone'sbusiness. That's not what you want. Give yourself some distance. Remove this situation as a project issue or a risk. Then you can deal with it personally, without involving the other team members.

Team dynamics
Have you had an experience where team dynamics were adversely affected? How did you handle it? Send us some mail or post a comment.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project management and life-cycle skills. He's also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.

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