How Should A Product Manager Handle Product Team Conflicts?

by drjim on December 16, 2013

When team members don't get along, everyone suffers

When team members don’t get along, everyone suffers
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I’m currently in charge of a team of skilled product development professionals who spend their time helping me to refine my product development definition. They each have their own set of skills that they bring to my product and I need each of them to be operating at peak efficiency if I want to have any hope of my product being a success. However, I’m currently facing a big problem: two members of my team flat out don’t get along with each other. What’s a product manager to do?

How The Problem Started

How does any problem between team members start? In all honesty, I’m not quite sure. I believe that this problem existed long before I took over control of this team. Both parties involved are actually very nice people and they seem to get along with everyone else. They just don’t like each other.

The first signs of a problem showed up when I started to be copied on a series of emails exchanged between these two. What they were talking about was a series of changes that needed to be made to some product related documents. The question seemed to revolve around who had the right to tell who to do what.

I’m willing to admit that I probably missed an important warning marker here – I saw the emails but I didn’t realize the issue that was only now starting to surface. Yes, I should have jumped right in and tried to resolve this issue from the start; however, I just saw it as an email exchange between two team members – the fact that I had been CC’ed should have been my first clue that all was not good. I need to find a way to solve this problem and if I can, then I’ll have something to add to my product manager resume.

What My Options Are

As you can well imagine, things went from bad to worst. I started to get calls from the people involved in this workplace feud telling me about how the other party had somehow wronged them. The issues that they brought up ranged from the possibly legit issue of who had ultimate control over a given document to the ridicules issue of someone not saying “hello” to them when they come into the office in the morning.

My big challenge here was how was I going to resolve this issue. One of the parties involved said something that really struck home with me: “…we’ll never be friends” When she said this, I realized that my job was not to get them to be friends, but rather to find a way so that they could work together as colleagues. This was a big breakthrough for me – as an engineer, I’m always looking for the “perfect” solution and I probably would never have been able to find one in this situation.

I’ve taken all of what you would probably call the standard steps to defuse this situation: I’ve talked with both parties, I’ve told them that they need to pull it together for the betterment of the company, I’ve divided the work up and assigned clear owners to the different parts. However, ill will continues to exist.

My work here is not done. One option that I’m considering is making the repair of the relationship an objective for each of the team members. You know, something that they’ll be evaluated on at the end of the year. This would take the issue out of my hands and put it right where it belongs – in their hands. I’m not yet sure if this would be a powerful management technique or simply a case of passing the buck. In real life there are no neat solutions to messy management problems.

What All Of This Means For You

As product managers, what we’d like to be able to spend our time doing is focusing on our product and finding ways for it to be more successful. However, what we need to realize that that we’re not going to be able to do this if our team is not working as a seamless unit. When there’s conflict within our team, we need to take action no matter if this is in your product manager job description or not.

I’m currently facing a situation where two of the members of my team don’t get along. I’m getting calls and emails where one complains about what the other has done to them. It is now my job to step in and fix this problem. A key point to remember is that both parties are both at fault and they are both going to have to change in order to fix the problem.

Yes, these kinds of personality based conflicts can be a distraction from what a product manager really needs to be spending his or her time on. However, they are real and they do need to be resolved. Allowing team problems to fester will just keep the team from being as successful as it can be. As a product manager you need to step into the situation and use your diplomacy skills to move both parties through the conflict and onto higher ground. No, it’s not going to be easy, but it is going to be necessary.

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: What do you think your next step should be if you can’t get warring team members to agree to work together?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Steve Jobs died too young – what great things could he have accomplished if only he had been able to live just a little bit longer? No matter, even during his brief time on this planet he accomplished a number of amazing product related things that every product manager can learn from. What’s even more important is that Steve left behind some great advice that all of us product managers need to hear and learn from.

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