Q: I’m on a multi-department team that is overseeing some major organizational changes. It’s a smart and dedicated group. The challenge is that we’ve had lots of turnover, revisiting of past decisions, and conflict resulting from opinions expressed by people with strong personalities. How do we manage this constructively? —Annika, 43, project manager
A: Open communication probably won’t be your problem! But it needs to be the right communication.
Fortunately, it sounds like you have all the raw materials to manage this situation. You would be facing a more intractable problem if the team was ego-driven rather than dedicated to achieving the desired business outcomes.
That said, tempers can flare when stakes are high. Assuming that this has already occurred, let’s start with easing any tension that may exist.
Depending on the severity, it may be worth having some one-on-one chats with those most involved. Talk with each about the interactions, reflecting with them on triggers, causes and potentially negative outcomes. Also brainstorm more effective ways to disagree with colleagues.
Think about the effects of unconstructive interaction on others. Exchanges that are harsher than necessary can have a dampening effect on observers, with long term damage to the team’s ability to be effective.
Then, as a group, discuss your team culture. Established members and newcomers alike should agree on ground rules for interaction, focusing in particular on how to manage disagreements.
There are some obvious things that are off-limits. Name calling should have been left behind in kindergarten. But how will you collectively manage passion and high emotion? Talking about this in a calm setting will help clarify expectations.
Consider each other’s needs. People who have helped make decisions may feel defensive if newer members question them. The new members, in turn, may feel ill-prepared or irrelevant if all important decisions seem to have been already made, and discussion is put off limits.
Now, turning from the group dynamics, look at your own role in helping the team through this. As project manager, you may feel that you are in the hot seat for addressing this.
At some level, this is true. The team will benefit from having a guide through this process. However, you also will need support and also need to be sure you have the necessary skills for this level of group facilitation. If this is a development area for you, seek out training and other resources, perhaps from your company’s HR or organizational development team.
As a team, agree on some coping mechanisms. People with more aggressive styles could commit to dialing it back a bit, while more sensitive people could learn to take a deep breath and absorb that the energy is not personally directed against them.
Find ways to use humor to ease these differences and defuse tension, being sure that it doesn’t cross lines into sarcasm against others.
And always explicitly reaffirm mutual respect. Recognize that you are collectively charged with important work on behalf of your company, and that every one of you must be successful in order to accomplish your goal.