Workplace Conflict

Several people ask about how to address workplace conflict. How do you get along with someone who won’t communicate? What if you are consistently out of the loop with information necessary for you to be successful? What if you have to work with someone with whom you simply can’t get along?

Personality conflicts are a normal part of the work place. In fact, they often start in school. Students are assigned to teams for assignments. As an instructor, I often heard complaints from individual students bemoaning another’s lack of participation or engagement. Some were planners and wanted to get organized early, others were last minute and used to pulling all-nighters. It’s ripe for conflict. My response…work it out. You’re going to have to work with people in teams in the work place, you may as well start now.

Not many appreciated the response. They wanted me to intervene, to fix it. Much the way employees want their managers to.

In ideal work environments, teams are fostered and developed. Planning occurs where work goals and norms are established. For projects and new teams thrust together for a common purpose, it is often a good idea to do planning retreats. It’s always good to know and realize the team development stages.

That’s the ideal. It’s difficult, however, when you work in an established environment without a lot of team camaraderie and development. So what do you do?

First, know yourself. What is your work style and how do you communicate? Know your preference styles (Myers-Briggs, Jung Typology Test) and look up the profile. Don’t use this information as a crutch or excuse, you have to adapt to work with various styles other than yours. But at least you know how you prefer to interact with others.

Then, engage your colleagues. If you have heated interactions in meetings or under pressure, step back a day or two. Talk with them later without the pressure of a situation.

Empathy goes a long way. Know the pressures they are under, the demands of their role. Figure out ways to help them. Little things make a difference over time.

If you need something from them to get your job done, it’s important to convey that in a non-confrontive manner. Start with ‘I know you have a number of things on your plate, but in order for me to complete my task, it is necessary to get your input.’

If none of that works, and you work with an incorrigible, ornery, passive-aggressive, you may have a good case with your manager. Talk with them in an objective manner. Don’t harp on the individual’s personality or foibles. Focus on the work. Chances are if you are having difficulties, others are as well.

If that doesn’t work, you need to come to grips with the fact that sometimes, these situations will not go away. You have choices. Live with it, work around it, or leave.

I had a management situation once where two very capable individuals had a years-long conflict. I walked into it late and tried my best to referee. After several months, HR engagement and a formal workplace grievance, I realized that their inability to get along was causing too much negative energy to those around them, my time and overall productivity. I finally pulled them in and let them know that enough was enough. Either work it out or leave, but their constant bickering and conflict was not going to be tolerated. Furthermore, it was going to be dealt with as a performance issue for both of them…inability to function positively in a team environment. There choice was that or leave. One of them left.

The best raw skills and talent will not overcome the inability to work effectively in a team. Not anymore.

This will probably strike a nerve with many readers. We all deal with this. If you have any ideas about effective strategies for dealing with others, please comment.

Related articles and resources…

Why Project Management Skills Matter

Project management provides campus technology departments with a framework to implement and infuse new technologies. It’s a disciplined approach to managing the process and containing costs of what can be multi-year, expensive (short- and long-term) technology initiatives. Project management is also a strategic method for managing and leveraging organizational change. Campus technology professionals should take stock; those who can run a project from inception to completion are worth their weight in gold.

Let’s start with a definition: a project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service. It implies:

  • a defined objective and/or deliverable
  • a specific timeframe
  • a budget
  • unique specifications
  • work across organizational boundaries

Good projects start with a charter -or scope document- that aligns executives and decision-makers with the core business and academic drivers for new technologies. Charters should be tied to organizational strategy and outline assumptions, costs, people needed, business practices impacted and key decisions that need to be made. Think of a project charter as a who-what-where-why-when…and how much?

A good project charter will (and should!) spur debate and meaningful dialogue before the project is approved. If it doesn’t, it hasn’t gone deep enough into the salient issues. Also, a charter should be a living document. Assumptions around costs, change management and staffing may need to be revisited as the project uncovers new information.

Not everyone appreciates project charters. They force decisions around challenging organizational issues and priorities, particularly for executives. There is a tendency for many to see only the shiny tip of the iceberg; project charters look underneath the surface at inconvenient realities and costs. Charters may present projects as underestimated and, sometimes, unfeasible.

There are several other key components of projects:

  • Work breakdown structures: definition and delineation of all the major categories of work.
  • Project schedule: Once the work is defined, the key tasks are injected into a schedule around which a realistic timeframe is derived.
  • Project budget: an outline of initial costs, long-term costs for people, software, hardware, training, events and documentation.
  • Communication plan: keeping stakeholders and project participants informed (bi-directional).
  • Team structure: engaging the people whose skills, experience and aptitude are best suited to the job.

Project management is also a framework for managing organizational change.

New technologies require changes in business processes and work habits. New behaviors must be learned and adopted, often at the expense of old behaviors. This is probably the greatest challenge for most technology projects in the higher ed culture. Due to the highly decentralized culture, managing change is difficult. Most leaders would prefer to avoid it and ‘just get the system up and running.’

Good projects require a responsive and centralized decision-making structure. Again, this is contrary to the higher ed culture that values broad input, debate and consensus. These values should not be dismissed, yet expedited decision-making for projects is required.

First, identify the decisions required, by whom and when. With large projects that involve major investments of funds and human resources, the decisions belong at the executive level. Second, allow for broad input, but place them in the timeframe of the project. If you are driven by a project schedule, allow for broader participation in defined times. Conduct open information sessions. Engage people online. But, no matter what, give them deadlines for input.  Remember, this is not business as usual. Projects that do not address this will often end up going over budget or schedule. Or worse, they could fail.

Managing change is an integral part of project management. You can plan for it. Or stumble through it. But there is no avoiding it.

Finally, the selection of a project manager is key. Not everyone is cut out for it. It requires someone who is organized. They need a desire to lead and be comfortable with ambiguity and long hours. A thick skin and positive attitude help. Mostly, they demonstrate a blend of hard and soft skills.

Effective project managers gain organizational cache. They may not be experts in all the areas of project management, but they are able to surround themselves with people of complementary skills. Then, with teams, they’re the ones who get things done.

If your organization is struggling with poorly led and waylaid IT initiatives, an infusion of project management is needed. Learn it, live by it and assign projects to the most capable individuals.

Additional resources:

Bare Bones Project Management
The Project Management Institute
Principles Behind the Agile Project Management Manifesto