Conflict in the project workplace : A coach’s perspective

High conflict levels unbearable

Conflict levels were so high at work that Paula had reached the point where she just wanted to resign her contract and leave it all behind her.  She knew that this was not a good move – she liked the company she was working with – “it was just a few people that were causing me the problems”.

What she hadn’t really understood (but her Employment Agent was alerted to) was that the problem was bigger than this.  Paula was beginning to get a reputation amongst managers and her peers as somebody who was just too difficult to work with – too high maintenance.  As one manager commented – “she seems to be good at her job – good at getting things done – but she really does rub others peoples’ backs up”.

Paula agreed to be involved in a coaching experience instigated by her Employment Agent to see if a resolution could be found.

Responsibility without authority – how the problem starts

Paula was working in a large IT programme responsible for one of the workstreams.  Her work was going well – in fact so well that when she completed the work, her manager suggested she help get some of the other streams on track.  This was an informal request from the manager who does not at any point seem to have let the other team members know that Paula had been asked to “help out”.

How Paula interpreted this was that she was to take on the programme management – overall responsibility for the work streams.  She started to set up meetings and status sessions; she referred to herself as programme manager.  The other project managers were at first non-plussed, annoyed and then, in the case of one of the project managers (Sarah) who Paula had previously worked closely with, downright aggressive about what they saw as her unnecessary and uncalled for intervention in their projects.

Eventually it got to the point that some members of the team refused to acknowledge Paula – they simply would not talk with her.  Communications were reduced to the exchange of emails which were often aggressive and more concerned with assigning blame than in working together to resolve joint work issues.

Taking control – the crisis point

The programme was nearing completion, deadlines were tight and tempers were fraught as teams were often working overtime and under intense pressure to meet the business deadline.  It was during this period that Sarah started to take time off sick. Her project was critical and Paula felt she just had to step in and make decisions and take actions in her absence.  No conversations took place – after all ”Sarah was not replying to emails” and there was no basis for informal communications as the relationship between her and Paula was already too bad.

When Sarah returned, rather than be pleased that work had gone ahead she was angry – she interpreted Paula’s actions as deliberate attempts to undermine her role as the project manager of the team.  She immediately started to unwind what Paula had done.  It was at this point that factions started to emerge – people were either on Paula’s side or Sarah’s side or, in many cases, were keeping their heads down because they just didn’t want to get involved in what was turning out to be a very unpleasant work situation.

And managements’ position?  They were aware – but felt that the conflict was so petty, so personal, that two “grown-up project managers” really ought to be able to sort it out.  This position was also complicated because Paula was a contractor and therefore not part of the normal performance management processes.  So despite the fact that performance on a business critical programme was undoubtedly being affected, nobody in management wanted to get involved.

Coaching part 1 – holding up the mirror

It was pretty clear from the first meeting that Paula had little idea of the impact of her actions on others – she could not put herself in their shoes to see how it felt.

One big insight early on was the realisation that she had taken the informal power given to her by her line manager and without authority being given or communicated had ‘taken over’ as programme manager – something which the team were not prepared for and certainly did not want.

While Paula’s project actions were probably good ones – it was the way she did it and the style she used which were rejected by her colleagues.  Paula’s natural style is directive which works well some of the time on projects, particularly when you just need to get it done.  It does not work well when you are working with peers or others who do not perceive you as the expert or having the power to make decisions.  This was something we knew we would need to work on further.

(Note from coach: Paula may have been put into a ‘poison chalice’ situation when she was asked to “help out” in the latter stages of a business critical projects.  She certainly needed more direction on what was meant by “help out”. To impose new leadership during the completion stage is always going to be difficult to do as there is little time to use consultative or consensual styles – it can only work if the person has credible authority or has very open and positive relationships with the other team members.)

Coaching part 2 – when communications goes wrong

We worked back over the email exchanges that had occurred – they were universally poor – but it took time for Paula to be able to read them from the recipients point of view.  In one notable email exchange we highlighted and removed all the text relating to blame and accusations – there was no other communications left!  We also explored the emotions evoked by reading emails – they were invariably ones of anger which often resulted in dashed off responses written in anger and creating yet more emotional responses.

One particular problem was the arranging of meetings using Outlook.  This was common practice in the organisation and probably works well much of the time, but not when relationships have failed.  Paula would book meetings in the team diaries with little or no consultation with them about what the meeting was about, why it was needed and why she was leading the meeting.  The result was that many times staff such as Sara did not turn-up, complaining that they did not have time for such meetings – particular ones where the agenda was not known.  Paula’s response was “…but if I tell them the purpose of the meeting they wouldn’t turn up anyway”.  This approach was never going to work.

Exploring the options

Of course – it was clear to anybody from the outside looking in that this mode of communications was going to have to change.  Emails and electronic booking of meetings were simply going to have to be stopped until relationships had been improved.  The need for meetings would need to be agreed face to face between participating members.  Verbal communications and preferably face to face communications must take precedence to emails… at least until more stable, respectful relationships were re-established

The trouble was that emotions were running so high the participants just were not ready or able to make this change.   Discussions with Paula about Sarah would still evoke all the typical signs of distress – she became irrational in her accusations and would flush with anger.  Mediation between the two was not available as the organisation and management team would not acknowledge or take any responsibility for resolving the issues.

We discussed the options.  Simply avoiding or circumventing the problems – moving on to the next project – was not going to help.  The business was not that big and the two of them would undoubtedly have to work together again.  Besides – there remained the problem that Paula was in a real danger of being typecast as a troublemaker by the management team – she needed to show herself and management that she could resolve these concerns and move on.

To do this Paula needed the composure and bravery to make the first small steps – actually talking to Sarah – creating the opening for a change in their working relationship.

Coaching part 3 – reducing emotional responses

How do you become calm and reduce the emotional feelings you have about somebody you have grown to distrust and even dislike?  The first important step was to refocus Paula’s goals – this was not about two people making up, in fact it probably was not really about Sarah at all.  It was about Paula demonstrating to herself and her managers that she had the maturity and management capability to work this through to a resolution that was best for the business and the programme.   Everything else – every other personal agenda (and vendetta!) needed to be parked.

Then we needed to practice – humour helps here.  We practiced finding the good values in Sarah – I sent Paula out to go listen to other people who worked well with Sarah – to listen to them without judgement.  And we practised some more – she communicated and I reacted!  Until one day it happened…

And finally

I got an email (ironically) from Paula – she had sat with Sarah at her desk – just a short conversation but they had agreed to meet again… and again.

The first conversation, a crucial conversation, had been casual but heartfelt.  It was not about work particularly but about feelings – it was honest, open and sensitive, allowing the space to share and agree a next step.   A crack had opened – it seemed they both shared the same problem.  Emotions were not gone yet, but there was a possibility for communications to start.

A coach’s perspective

Right from the first meeting it was clear a crucial conversation would have to be had at some point, else Paula would have to decide to move on and leave the company.  What was interesting about this for me is that sometimes people simply aren’t ready yet for that conversation to occur.  This coaching took place over a 2 month period – the timing of when to do to do the conversation was Paula’s – she decided that she was now ready and that to me was incredibly important.

Did it work?  Well Paula did stay at the company and indeed took up a permanent post.

Could Paula find herself in this situation again?  I suspect so.  Lack of direct authority over resources is one of the many difficult situations project managers face.  Some projects managers would even say their job is made impossible when they do not have control of resources, but in my experience there are some project managers who still manage to be successful, at least some of the time, despite this challenge.  They understand and are able to apply classic situational leadership techniques – they draw upon other sources of power besides command and control and they get things done with people rather than despite people.

Had Paula’s management style changed?  I’m not sure.  Would she recognise if she was straying into the wrong management areas in the future – I hope so.

And finally – did the management team change their perceptions about Paula?  This is a tricky one.  They must have regained confidence in her – after all, she was employed fulltime.  But once a reputation or even a ‘rumour of a reputation’ appears, I think we all know how difficult it can to recover from this.  Actions to address these types of concerns must always be taken quickly and communicated well.

Addenda from the coach

This coaching focused on supporting the individual, but it does raise other questions around performance management in projects. Should management in the parent company have stepped in earlier to mediate and guide the team out of these problems?  The programme and the performance of the team must have suffered from this workplace conflict.  I believe that management does have managerial responsibility to promote performance and a moral responsibility to reduce or at least manage stress in the workplace.  Why didn’t they?  There is an increasingly divisive split between the way permanent and contract staff are managed in business with some managers taking the view that if they are contractors “I don’t need to be concerned with managing work place performance”.

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