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Disagreement, sometimes even conflict, is a natural part of healthy project working and something that a project manager needs to be comfortable with. However, as this extract from A Practical Guide to Dealing with Difficult Stakeholders by Jake Holloway, David Bryde, Roger JobyGower Publishing 2015, shows; it can be useful to develop your own internal compass to help you judge when argument and conflict may be shifting to outright mutiny.

“Some team members disagree with you on an important decision. This is a normal and sometimes very important part of the project process.

Issue logging has always been the project manager’s weapon of choice for day-to-day differences. Any team member can raise an issue and have it documented before the Team collectively agrees the way forward. Normally, if this process is working, it will do the trick. But if the disagreement persists but remains reasonable, then holding a special meeting to review the issue, perhaps with the Sponsor present, will help to get it fully settled. Bear in mind that the minority may indeed be correct (even if they think you are a terrible project manager!). Give it some air time and then, slowly but firmly, draw the discussions to a close and make it clear that discussion is over. Watch the individuals involved closely afterwards, because these situations can create persistent trouble-makers.

Some team members have become trouble-makers and persistently disagree with you. The Project is becoming disrupted. N.B. Beware, the dark hand of the Anti-Sponsor may be involved.

It’s time to show your authority. Unchecked this situation can destroy the Project and you have no choice but to meet the challenge to your authority head on. Try dealing with the ring-leader(s) separately and making it clear that the Project comes first. Consider removing one or more of them from the Team (if you can and it would not disrupt the Project, then you probably should!). Involve the Sponsor in these meetings and make sure they know that it’s time for them to back you up. You may need to make it clear that, if the situation is not resolved, you will have to reconsider your position (especially if it’s something you can do without harming your personal position). At the same time, work on the positive members of the Team to encourage them to show and voice their support. Look at team-building exercises that encourage team behaviour.

If you do detect the influence of an Anti-Sponsor, then deal with them in parallel.

Disunity. The Team as a whole disagrees with you on an important decision or two.

It may only be a single decision but if you clearly see things on this issue differently from the majority, then you need to start persuading them more effectively. Don’t make the mistake of just stating “my way or the highway”. Get into the decision/issue in detail and work out why they disagree. Get to the underlying reasons and perhaps deal with those separately. A common example is in IT projects. The Team wants to build the system using some sexy new technology that will boost their CVs, but that they have no experience in. You want to build it in the boring but proven existing toolset that everyone knows. So this is about their CVs and is not the right thing for the Project. Now that you know this you can maybe find a way of using the right tools but giving them some new experiences that are not so core to the Project.

Mutiny! The Team has lost confidence in you (if it ever had any) and disputes every decision.

Congratulations! Moments like this are colossal opportunities to learn the real art of project management. Enjoy the moment!

First, if you can, move the situation back down to simply that of a minority of trouble-makers (divide and rule) or to that of a single issue or decision (re-focus everything on a single, winnable point).

But if the mutiny is sustained then it’s you or the Team. The Project has in effect already stopped dead in its tracks and you may as well face up to it. You have to get the necessary levels of authority from the Sponsor, deal with the Anti-Sponsor (there will be one somewhere) and put down the mutiny. It’s either that or you will shortly be looking for a new project! You can fire some or all of the Team and bring in new team members who support you. Or put the whole situation to the Sponsor and ask them to resolve it. Do not close your eyes and hope it blows over because, even if it does, it will happen again and again.

Stakeholder engagement is about dealing with people and in this case it’s dealing with people in an extreme situation.

What do you think? You may not be quiet as sanguine about all-out mutiny as the authors suggest but what techniques do you use for dealing with unrest in the project team and how do you ensure you keep a sense of proportion?

Read A Practical Guide to Dealing with Difficult Stakeholders in its entirety on GpmFirst.

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