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Managing Conflict at Work: Navigating Challenges on Project-Based Teams

By Jordan Lewis
September 27, 2023

Have you ever been on a team where you were trying to keep up with one conflict after another? Whenever multiple people come together to collaborate in order to achieve common goals, conflict is an unfortunate, inevitable companion. The success of any project hinges not only on a well-laid plan but also on how effectively conflicts are managed. Managers who possess conflict resolution skills are the true unsung heroes of the corporate realm.

In this article, we’ll discuss the art of managing conflict at work, particularly within project-based teams, and explore strategies on how to handle those tough conversations with team members who may not be performing up to par.

It’s crucial to understand that conflict is not necessarily a negative force. If all team members agree on every single idea that is presented to them, you may be dealing with team members who are too afraid to speak up. Differing opinions, ideas, and personalities can give rise to vibrant discussions that often lead to innovative solutions!

The challenge arises when these differences escalate into disputes that hinder progress. Therefore, successful project managers, product managers, team leads, and managers recognize that their role includes not just managing tasks and timelines but also facilitating healthy interactions among team members.

Conflict Management in Project-Based Teams

Open Communication: Communication is the foundation of conflict resolution. Encourage an environment where team members feel free to express their concerns and disagreements. Regular check-ins, one-on-ones, and team meetings provide platforms for open discussions that can prevent misunderstandings from turning into conflicts.

Active Listening: The skill of active listening can never be overstated. Give team members your full attention when they express their concerns. By doing so, you not only gather insights but also show that you value their perspectives.

Empathy and understanding: Conflict often stems from differing viewpoints or personal frustrations. Empathize with team members and try to understand their positions. This fosters a sense of camaraderie and can help diffuse tensions.

Collaborative Problem-Solving: Instead of pinpointing blame, focus on finding solutions together. Encourage team members to collectively brainstorm and collaborate on ways to overcome challenges.

Clear Roles and Responsibilities: Confusion over roles and responsibilities can lead to conflict. Ensure that each team member understands their tasks and the tasks of others, reducing the chances of misunderstandings. The team’s roles and responsibilities should be written down in a team charter or division of responsibilities document. Having a document with these clearly defined roles can help team members when confusion arises over their responsibilities.

Navigating Tough Conversations with Underperforming Team Members

Dealing with team members who aren’t meeting expectations can be uncomfortable, but it’s a crucial aspect of effective conflict management. Below are 7 steps to handle these conversations tactfully:

  1. Choose the Right Time and Place. Schedule a private meeting in a neutral, comfortable setting. If possible, managers should always avoid addressing performance issues in front of the entire team, as it can lead to embarrassment and resentment.
  2. Focus on Behavior and Impact. Frame the conversation around specific behaviors and their impact on the project. Instead of attacking the person, address only the actions that need improvement.
  3. Use “I” Statements. Express your concerns using “I” statements. For example, you could say, “I’ve noticed that the project timelines have been affected by some delays,” rather than “You are causing delays.”
  4. Ask for Their Perspective. Give the underperforming team members a chance to share their perspective and insight into what’s going on. There may be underlying reasons for their performance issues that you aren’t aware of.
  5. Set Clear Expectations. Clearly define the expectations and standards for performance. Collaboratively create an action plan for improvement and write down the actions that will be taken to improve their performance.
  6. Offer Support. Let the team members know that you are there to support them in their efforts to improve. Offer resources, training, or guidance as needed.
  7. Follow Up. Schedule follow-up meetings to track progress either weekly or monthly. Recognize and acknowledge improvements and address any setbacks promptly.


Conflict is a natural part of human interaction, but with the right strategies, conflicts can be harnessed to drive growth and innovation. Successful managers foster an environment of open communication, active listening, and collaborative problem-solving. When it comes to addressing underperforming team members, approaching the conversation with empathy, understanding, and a focus on solutions can lead to positive outcomes.

By creating clear expectations and providing ongoing support, project managers can help team members overcome challenges and contribute effectively to the project’s success. In the end, conflict management is not just a skill; it’s a mindset. By cultivating a culture of respectful communication and proactive conflict resolution, teams can overcome obstacles, build stronger relationships, and achieve remarkable results.

PMP Trainer | SAFe SPC | Agile Coach

Jordan is from Southern California and moved out to Utah where she attended the University of Utah. While there she studied Business Management and Sociology. Jordan worked in Project Management managing large projects for over 5 years and has extensive agile experience. She held several advanced certifications including the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification, Certified Scrum Master (CSM) certification, SAFe Practice Consultant (SPC), and PMP Authorized Training Partner certification.

Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.

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