Project Management Rebooted™ | Does Project Team Dysfunction Have to Spell Disaster?

You're sitting in your second weekly project team meeting as part of your new assignment as project manager on a year-long, high-visibility project.

You've asked for input and opinion from the project team on several key issues - issues that are alive with a painful amount of high risk and big impacts requiring the expert insights from your team.

But no one is talking.

Except the crickets.

You're about to lose it in the meeting as you realize the team is not willing to say anything about much.

WTF?


And then, to add some spice to your project, you have a couple of inherited project team members who avoid accountability at all costs.  They hide their lack of work, they miss key deliverable deadlines, taking up project manager time with repeated nudging to "get it done", not to mention the tracking of when the last time they were nudged; like a frazzled parent trying to get their 3-year-old to pick up their toys or eat their dinner for the last 3 months.

We've all been there.

Trying to lead and manage a project team in the effort to get project work done as you try to stay on schedule is not an easy thing.  Different personalities, mindsets, and maturity and skill levels can make for one gigantic cluster of turmoil and poor outcomes, sabotaging your Project Manager street cred along the way.

More than that, the tone you set, the expectations you lay out early on, are the actions that are going to make or break your future success with your project team.

So, what do you do about it?

If you haven't heard of Patrick Lencioni and his classic book on teams "The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team", then now is the time to buy it and read it.  Patrick wraps stories of team dysfunction up in a relatable way with humor and realism, providing you with all the tools and tricks you need to manage your project team with grace, tact, and calm.

It's comforting to know that even the best teams struggle, and that the actual act of struggling can either make your team resilient and cohesive, or it can shatter any semblance of collaboration and team work, leaving your projects in a pile of steaming compost.

Let's break down these two common project team issues in the context of Patrick Lencioni's book and see how you, as the Project Manager and Project Leader, can apply proactive concepts and tools to minimize the distress in your project team.  And then, I'll recommend some Project Team Best Practices you can use with your project team from the onset, or even mid-stream, to prevent mayhem and respond like the true project leader you are.

 

Project Team on Mute

Most Project Managers worth their salt are going to know something is not right when their project team is not saying anything much in the project meetings.  Sometimes this can mean they know something you don't - as in "something really, really bad just happened with the development team or the design team and we don't want to tell you about it."

Other times it can mean they don't feel comfortable sharing their perspective or opinion because there's a perception the team environment is not safe - there is fear of conflict around them feeling safe in sharing opposing views or negative news and feedback.

This could be the fear-based environment you created, or it could be a fear-based environment you inherited from a previous project manager or organizational culture.  Whatever the case, you need to right the ship and instill openness and trust if you want them to start talking.

When fear of conflict is a dominant factor in your project team, you're going to see things like the project team appearing bored out of their minds in meetings. Where the team is checking their phone and laptops with unbridled abandon - ignoring your requests for collaboration, as in the example here;  you may see avoidance of controversial topics, the ghost gorilla in the room, being avoided and ignored; team members backbite and sabotage you, other management, and each other behind the scenes; the beauty in the variety of differing opinions and perspectives is crushed, innovative thinking goes undiscovered; your team wastes their time and energy focused on posturing and interpersonal risk management with one another.

Not helpful to getting stuff done. Not going to help you deliver good outcomes.

If you want to keep this Fear of Conflict dysfunction from showing up in your project team, Patrick has a few suggestions for you:

  • Invite discourse in the team on different ideas and concepts
  • Acknowledge healthy conflict is productive and a time-saver
  • Allow the extraction and exploitation of all team members’ ideas – ask leading questions to get all ideas out on the table (even the ones you disagree with or don't like!)
  • Minimize politics by not playing into them with your team
  • Put real topics on table for discussion and allow the discussion to happen organically
  • Allow resolution to occur naturally – don’t feel you have to intervene every time
  • Model appropriate conflict resolution behavior yourself

The bottom line here is that you, as the project team leader, set the table for what will get served up; you deliver a sweet order of openness and transparency, they'll start feeling like they can share ideas, information, and concerns - what is truly on their mind.

Let’s take a look at the second example.

 The Unaccountable Mole

I once had a project team member who was the best at playing the "hide your work" game.  I felt like I was playing whack-a-mole.  He was the mole.  I was the one with the mole whacker.

At first, my mole whacker was made of plush velvet, filled with soft, goose down.   He showed up to weekly project team meetings and talked a good game the first few weeks:  I’d give him a little soft bop with my velvet bat (literally asking what he was working on and how was it going), and he reassured the team he was hard at work and would meet the deadlines in time for our go-live date.

But really, he wasn't doing what he said he was doing.  He wasn’t doing any of it.

It took some time for me and the team to realize his work was not getting done, and he was not being forthcoming about it.  After giving him a few chances under my "assume positive intent" clause (that’s the velvet bat), I had to do something I really hate to do:  I pulled out my heavy-duty mole whacker. I had to go to his functional manager and let her know he was not doing his work and it was jeopardizing our go-live.

Thankfully, I got quick action - a new resource who picked it up quickly and saved the day by completing his work in time.

I see this happen all the time in project teams, and sometimes we as Project Managers wait too long to address it, suffering painful project outcomes as a result.

In this case, you as the Project Manager can set up some proactive actions at the start of the project and help tamp down the tendency for some team members to avoid accountability:

  • Ensure poor performers feel pressure to improve by leveraging the team to keep each other accountable
  • Identify potential problems quickly by questioning one another’s approaches without hesitation
  • Establish respect among team members who are held to same high standards
  • Avoid excessive focus on corrective action

I could go on and on with examples of team dysfunction finding plenty of examples around the other three areas of dysfunction:  Absence of Trust, Lack of Commitment, and Inattention to Results.

But Patrick Lencioni already does that in his awesome book: if you go read that, I guarantee you will be complete on the majority of what you need to know about dealing with your broken project team or preventing deep dysfunction as you start with a new team.

Ok – so we have a good idea about the dysfunction, but what are tools you can use right now?

I've got two simple and powerful things to share with that you can do right away to start building trust and set expectations with your team. I have found these to be instrumental in helping me prevent team dysfunction from showing up like a  Category 5 hurricane.

Team Declaration/Agreement:  I use this right out of the gate at the start of a project or sprint to establish expectations and trust within and amongst any team I am leading.  This is an agreement or declaration of team norms and expectations that actually spells out how you will interact, including addressing conflict and ensuring accountability.

If you start out with an agreement like this, something the team reviews, has input on, and agrees upon, you will avoid an incredible amount of team turmoil and angst down the road.

I'm not saying you won't experience any turmoil and angst. I'm saying you will avoid much of it, and it will help you move quicker from that team "storming stage" and into the team "norming stage" where you all start moving together in unison like the Olympic Water Ballet team. (The template I use is included in my Free Project Management Content Library .)

Another tool I use is called a Reflection - taking 5 minutes at the start of every project team meeting to have a team member share something meaningful or inspirational with the team.  I usually go alphabetically by first or last name, so each week we rotate – no one is confused on who is up for the next meeting. Everyone gets the opportunity to share, including me as the project leader.

Whatever is shared does not have to be spiritual.  It can be anything that encourages the team:  a meaningful story or fable about overcoming, recent studies or statistics about the work or outcome you're all working on, a quote that jumped out and spoke to you, and yes, a verse from the person's favorite religious book if that's what they want to share.

This is about inviting diversity, delegating encouragement to the whole team, and keeping the right mindset throughout your time together.  I learned this practice during my tenure in a Catholic-based healthcare organization and I can tell you from experience, this one thing drew my team together in a way nothing else really could in the midst of chaos and all holy hell breaking lose.

I was going to call this article/blog post "Distress-free team management".  Then I realized that would be something I could not deliver on.  There is no such thing as “Distress-free” management of a team.

You can minimize the stress and distress, but you can't get rid of it entirely.  Nor do you want to.

We are human.  We are dealing with people.  There's going to be conflict.  Allowing conflict is a good thing.  It is necessary to growth and for moving out of the team "storming" phase and into the team "norming" phase.  It helps us mature, discover new ways of looking at problems, and can strengthen the bonds of team.

As Project Management Leaders, let’s learn to be proactive and thoughtful in the leading of our project teams, instead of reactionary and passive.

For when we do, our teams will be able to shine and be at their best.

 

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