Of all crisis scenarios, I consider ones caused by team interactions the most delicate to handle. Simply, it is harder to address these issues impartially. The perception of a situation can impact our psyche in a bigger way than pure facts. Also, when it comes to decisions that have personal implications, business and corporate interest may not be on top of the list. It may be a key team member leaving or someone consistently underperforming; even interpersonal problems may escalate to a level that endangers the whole project.
Team crisis is difficult to foresee and handle, yet like any other crisis, it may cause severe damage if not immediately addressed. In general, team crisis doesn’t qualify as a formal crisis. Most of the times, it won’t be escalated to the board; even the customer is usually not affected. Still, the impact on your project may be extremely high.
A single underperforming team member may slow down the whole project, augmenting the costs. Internal conflict jeopardises the project quality since the interaction of different team members is essential to keep the expected standards. The worst thing you can do is ignore the problem.
Assuming you’ve tried solving the problem directly with the team member(s) in question, and had no success, here is a couple of advice on how to proceed towards a (happy) crisis resolution.
Team Crisis: Castling the Project
The Good of the Many
Whatever the problem is, remember that you have a team to lead. It is crucial that you isolate the problem as soon as you identify it.
If you’ve already spoken with the person causing the problem and obtained no result, you must proceed to isolate the problem. Gather your team and send a clear message that the problem is being addressed. Be clear about the fact that the issue is not personal and that the decision has been taken to protect the project team and project itself. You must clearly explain the impact that “taking no action” may have. Also, make it clear that you tried to address the issue and weren’t able to make any improvement.
You could experience some resistance at this stage from the rest of the team, especially if the team is sympathising with the person in question (for example personal issues lead to low performance or conflict with the organisation). In this case, you may ask the rest of the team if they want to compensate for their colleague thus reducing the impact of the situation on the project. Keep in mind that this is only a short-term solution and non-applicable to essential roles.
Usually, Project Managers don’t have direct authority over their team members. If this is also your case, it’s fundamental that you involve the direct manager of the person.
It is crucial to stick to the facts since those problems can often be interpreted as interpersonal. Produce all the emails and formal communication you have regarding the issue, as well as a short recap of informal talks (just don’t rely too much on those).
Since you have the lead on the project, it is up to you to propose a solution. As usual, you should try softening people’s positions, but keep in mind that you are in charge of the project and that you will be accountable in the case of problems.
You Are Not Solomon
When it comes to interpersonal issues, the temptation to try to find a compromise that would leave both sides equally satisfied is often high. Nevertheless, I do not consider it an efficient method. It usually ends up creating frustration on both sides.
One of the aspects of being a manager, or a project manager, is to solve this kind of issues.
Most of the time, the blame is not only on one side, which does not mean that it must be 50-50. The bad habit of finding something to blame on both sides will only bring out the conflicts. Concentrate on the issue, and on the issue alone.
At the end of the day, team crisis is one of the heaviest burdens a Project Manager can bear. Handling them is a skill, avoiding them – art.