5 Strategies to Deal with Difficult Team Members as a New PM

people resource management Sep 17, 2023
5 Strategies to Deal with Difficult Team Members as a New PM

As a new Project Manager (PM), you're stepping into a leadership role responsible for steering your team towards success. However, the journey isn't always smooth, and you'll likely encounter difficult team members. These individuals can challenge your patience, communication skills, and leadership abilities, but they also provide valuable opportunities for growth and development.

Let’s explore five strategies to help you effectively deal with difficult team members, ensuring your projects stay on track and your team remains motivated and productive.

Recognize Difficult Team Members

Here are five familiar, difficult team members you may encounter.

  1. The Dominator: This individual constantly seeks to control discussions and decisions, potentially stifling creativity and collaboration.
  2. The Negative Nancy: Pessimism is their forte, often spreading negativity and demotivation among team members.
  3. The Slacker: They consistently underperform, relying on their colleagues to pick up the slack.
  4. The Know-It-All: These team members believe they have all the answers and dismiss the ideas and expertise of others.
  5. The Passive-Aggressive: This person may appear agreeable on the surface but sabotages the team's progress through subtle undermining.

Don’t be surprised if you find a team member that checks multiple boxes.  For example, I’ve encountered personalities that combined the Know-It-All and Passive-Aggressive with a dash of Dominator.

Understand the Underlying Causes of Difficult Behavior

Difficult team members can act out for various reasons. Understanding these causes can help lead to better solutions.

  1. Personal Issues: External factors like personal problems, stress, or psychological issues can sometimes impact their behavior at work.
  2. Misalignment with Project Goals: Lack of clarity about the project's objectives or disagreement with its direction can lead to friction. Technical disputes, such as scheduling tool choices or software selection, can also lead to behavioral issues.
  3. Communication Breakdowns: Poor communication between team members can exacerbate misunderstandings and conflicts.
  4. Social Attention: Seeking attention through positive or negative means may be an underlying reason for problematic behaviors.

Strategy 1: Practice Open and Transparent Communication

Effective communication is the cornerstone of managing difficult team members:

  • Set Clear Expectations: Clarity is critical. Clearly define roles, responsibilities, and project goals. Make sure every team member understands what's expected of them. Let the team members participate in defining their roles and project goals when possible, as it will increase their buy-in.
  • Listen Actively and Communicate Empathetically: Take the time to listen to your team members' concerns and issues. Show empathy and understanding.
  • Address Issues Promptly and Privately: When problems arise, address them promptly and privately. Avoid public humiliation, which can escalate conflicts.
  • Encourage Team Members to Voice Concerns: Create an environment where team members feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and concerns. Encourage open dialogue.

Strategy 2: Learn Effective Conflict Resolution Techniques

Conflict is inevitable, but it can be managed constructively:

  • Recognize Signs of Escalating Conflict: Pay attention to escalating tensions within your team.
  • Address Conflicts Constructively: Follow a structured and collaborative approach. After building rapport and empathy with those in conflict, work with them to:
    1. Define the issue.
    2. Gather information.
    3. Brainstorm solutions.
    4. Evaluate and choose the best solution.
    5. Document the solution.
    6. Implement the solution and monitor progress.
  • The Role of the PM in Mediating Conflicts: Be an impartial mediator and resolve conflicts professionally.

Strategy 3: Set Boundaries and Expectations

Establishing boundaries and expectations is essential:

  • Define Roles and Responsibilities Clearly: Ensure each team member knows their roles and responsibilities.
  • Establish Performance Metrics and Goals: Set performance metrics and goals for each team member. This provides a clear path for improvement.
  • Enforce Consequences for Not Meeting Expectations: Be prepared to enforce consequences for those who consistently fail to meet expectations.
  • Be Consistent: Consistency is critical to maintaining team discipline and fairness.

Strategy 4: Build a Positive Team Culture

A positive team culture can mitigate challenging behavior:

  • Foster a Collaborative and Supportive Environment: Encourage collaboration, mutual support, and a sense of belonging.
  • Celebrate Successes and Acknowledge Contributions: Recognize and reward team members for their achievements and contributions.
  • Use Team-Building Activities and Trust-Building Exercises: Organize activities that strengthen team bonds and build trust. This can be as simple as taking a break to walk to a local ice cream shop or hosting occasional bag lunch meetings.
  • Encouraging Team Members to Help Each Other: Promote a culture of assistance and knowledge sharing among team members.

Strategy 5: Seek Help and Involve Upper Management

Sometimes, situations may require higher intervention due to the positions of people involved or if reasonable attempts at resolving conflict have not been successful.

  • Recognize When a Situation is Beyond Your Control: Acknowledge when your efforts alone can't resolve the issue. I’ve also had teams where it was necessary to have a team member who was also a manager or senior in experience. While some can work well in these situations, others may want to dominate, and you may need help managing their behavior.
  • Decide When and How to Involve HR or Upper Management: Consult with HR or involve upper management when necessary, providing them with documented evidence and asking for help.
  • Keep Adequate Documentation: Keep records of problematic behavior, conflicts, and efforts to address them. Documentation can be invaluable if higher-level intervention is required.
  • Leverage Resources and Expertise: Utilize the resources and expertise available within your organization to help manage difficult team members effectively.

Dealing with difficult team members is a challenging yet vital aspect of being a Project Manager. You can confidently navigate these challenges by applying these five strategies - open communication, conflict resolution, setting boundaries, fostering a positive team culture, and seeking help. Successful team management leads to project success, and your leadership growth will benefit your team and career.


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