When Good Project Teams Go Bad: How To Survive With Difficult People

In the first episode of the reality TV show Survivor participants are delivered to some of the most unforgiving places on the face of the earth and then compete to determine which team survives the process of elimination. Interesting project, isn’t it?


In almost every series, team members are so happy to be working with each other. Within days, or at the most within weeks, the group starts to unravel. Toward the end of the series, the hostility among team members provides much of the energy for the show.


Not that there is a direct comparison, but any team, including project teams often experience the same behavioral pattern. Project groups start out working well, excited by the project and the possibility of making a real contribution, but when differences begin to emerge, group cohesion can suffer and too much energy can go into working around these problems.
Sometimes the problems can be related back to one or a few individuals.


When problems occur there are three questions that need to be asked. Is there anything that can be done? If the answer is yes then what should be done?  Finally, when should it be done?


Is There Anything That Can be Done? This is a tough question to answer and depends on several factors. If the behavior is truly disruptive and non-productive then the answer is definitely yes. Sometimes politics may get in the way and prevent you from taking action. For example the person may be well connected and any confrontation may have unfortunate long term consequences.  You also have to choose your battles and in some circumstances it may be beneficial to ignore an incident or two.


What Should be done?  Unlike a reality TV show the energy generated by difficult behavior serves no useful purpose. As a result you need to consider stepping in as soon as there are symptoms can be recognized.
But this is the hardest part of the process since symptoms may just represent the normal ebb and flow of human interaction or they may represent the beginning of a split within the group that could add another layer of complexity to your job as project manager.


How can you tell the symptoms need attention? Here you need to use your intuition and rely on your history with the individual. If the person or persons who are creating the problem have a history of difficult behavior then the very first symptom should be taken seriously. Or if your intuition suggests that there are legs to the tension that has emerged, again it is necessary to take action.


When should it be done?  When do you take action?  The best strategy is to take action immediately.  On the assumption that the symptom is real, the difficult behavior is unlikely to disappear. If it continues unchallenged it may only get worse.


What action should you take? Here are three steps that are useful to consider.


Call The Behavior. Take the individual aside and explain what you have seen or heard. “Brad, it has come to my attention that you and Alicia are having trouble working together on the scope statement.”


Then it is useful to add a disclaimer; “Is there any truth to this?”


In most cases the person you called aside will deny that a problem exists, but your point has been made and you have put him on notice.


Set Boundaries.  If the behavior continues, it will be necessary to schedule another meeting. “Brad, we talked about the possibility that you and Alicia are having trouble working together, and the problem has not gone away” You might also ask for his suggestion, “How can we fix it?”


During this session, or perhaps the next session, if the problem persists, you must set boundaries. “Brad, I need you to put personal issues aside and work with Alicia. The problems that have persisted in the last few weeks are beginning to interfere with our ability to get the job done.”


Monitor the Behavior and repeat the message as necessary. Difficult behavior is slow to change, so you will probably not witness permanent change for the difficult person. When it heats up again the boundaries have to be repeated.


Maintaining group behavior. What can happen when there are difficult people in the group is that they get 80 percent of your psychological energy and only 20 percent is left for those who work well as team. Don’t let the difficult person command all of your emotional energy. It is far better to deal with the difficult person in a direct way and then to spend most of your time and energy on the rest of the team.

Lessons Learned. In most cases difficult behavior needs to be addressed directly. If it is neglected the entire group may suffer. Intervention doesn’t stop the behavior from occurring altogether, it only serves to place boundaries on the behavior while the individual is working with the team.


Here’s the most important part. By calling the behavior you make the work environment a better place in which the rest of the team can work and you feel better because you have maintained some control over a difficult, or potentially difficult situation.

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