I normally encourage project managers and team leaders to fight the urge to get involved in garden-variety conflicts (“Stop Meddling!”), since these often lead to innovative and creative solutions. But there are times when some intervention by a Project Team’s leadership is a good idea. Below are some guidelines to help you determine when to step in and when to step back.
Professionalism has gone out the window. The instant a conflict escalates into all-out warfare, you must intervene. Direct personal attacks are forbidden, as is divulging sensitive details (either business-related or personal) to others in an attempt to influence their opinion or gain their support, general venting that includes bad-mouthing another team member, and any refusal to interact with the other person that impedes the group’s activities.
Productivity has dropped. When you notice productivity levels—of the people involved in the conflict or of those around them—are slipping, it’s time to get everyone back on track. Signs that the team’s output is dropping could range from meetings that are monopolized by arguments (these will usually be about the same things over and over) to unresolved disagreements that delay a project’s progress or negatively affect critical milestones. If any of these triggers crop up, you need to step in and mediate so the team can move forward.
The players aren’t on equal footing. If the seniority level or reporting structure of the involved parties means that one is at a distinct disadvantage, you should pay close attention to how the conflict is progressing. Any abuse of a position merits intervention, so be on the lookout for arguments where one person is able to withhold resources, deny new opportunities, or otherwise interfere with the work of the other. Productive conflict only happens when everyone involved is able to participate without fear of retribution.