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How to resolve team conflict

Arguing team members can derail a project. Project managers can help resolve the issue by finding its root cause.

When two other team members (perhaps a tester and a developer, for example) aren't getting along, how can a project manager handle the situation to keep the project on track?

When there is team conflict, especially when two team members seem like they are continually disagreeing and butting heads, it's usually because they have conflicting priorities. Although everyone on the project team should have the same goal, team members may fundamentally disagree on the best approach to accomplish that goal. In general, getting the project back on track requires the project manager to get the fighting parties to focus on their common ground and move toward a mutually beneficial understanding.

Each team member will generally embrace one element of this triple constraint (time, cost or scope) more than the others.

The team's goal should be to complete the project on schedule, within budget and with a high degree of quality. Each team member will generally embrace one element of this triple constraint (time, cost or scope) more than the others. What is most important to each team member usually comes from their respective roles and responsibilities on the project. For example, a developer or business-systems analyst may place a lot of importance on keeping the scope on track, whereas a tester may be more concerned about the quality of the delivery.

When team conflict threatens to steer the project off-course, the project manager needs to analyze the root cause in order to understand what each team member considers most important.

A project manager who takes the time to understand the needs, values and priorities of each team member will understand the root cause of the clash, and he or she will be better equipped to deal with the issue. Then the project manager can meet individually with the team members who are fighting to help them understand each other's point of view. If the conflict is more pervasive among the team members, a team meeting during which each member offers his or her point of view may be a better approach.

In conclusion, in order to avoid refereeing a team conflict, the project manager should seek to understand the root of the conflict and then help each team member see the other's point of view.

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How have you resolved conflict on your teams? What has worked, and what has not?
I have found it useful to get the team to go through an initial team building experience as part of the project kickoff. Part of this experience entails writing a short mission, vision and values statement, preferably aligned with company mission, vision and values. Completing the project on schedule, within budget and with a high degree of quality can be considered to be a mission statement, but it is product and not people-oriented. A vision statement indicates how the team views itself after completing the project and jointly affirming a short set of key values can provide guidelines or principles to help resolve conflicts about how to resolve issues.

Since we work within a Scrum framework, Scrum retropectives also provide great opportunities to resolve unhelpful conflicts and to leverage conflicts into opportunities for improvement.