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When Peers Don't Perform

Increasingly, work environments demand more collaboration and team approaches to problem-solving and project management. But collaborative work can create strained, tense relationships when differing styles conflict rather than complement. What happens when the peer you're paired with doesn't carry his weight? What if his standards are distinctly different from your own?

Few managers have formal training in effective collaboration, and most educational models reward individual achievement. Addressing these problems can often lead to a quagmire: Formal institutional mechanisms are generally lacking, going to one's boss often backfires, and relying on matters to resolve themselves only prolongs or compounds the issue.

Joseph Weintraub, professor of management at Babson College, management consultant and author of The Coaching Manager, advises clients to discuss how they will work as a team and how they will plan for the conflict that often accompanies group work. "Often work teams dive in to get a project accomplished without taking the time initially to discuss how they will get the work done," he says.

The following steps will help alleviate performance problems with peers:

* At the beginning of an assignment, convene an initial group meeting. Confirm that each team member clearly understands his role as well as those of others. Discuss the project's priority level to help create a shared understanding. Set clear check-in times and project deadlines with defined expectations. Discuss how the group will resolve conflict in advance. This will help to introduce the concept that conflict is a normal and inevitable part of group work.

* Address concerns immediately. Often individuals avoid any conflict hoping the issues will subside.

* Discuss concerns in private and only after you have taken time to prepare your thoughts. Impulsive outbursts or emotional statements will only compound the situation.

* Address concerns in professional terms that focus on the problem, not the person. Making judgments or comments on personal characteristics will only divert focus from the issue at hand and contribute to a more hostile climate.

According to Weintraub, work teams produce better outcomes when they balance between hammering away at a project and checking in periodically as a group to discuss their progress and making the needed adjustments. ¿Establishing norms and expectations for member participation in group work, as well as a means for resolving conflict as it arises, minimizes interpersonal clashes that often derail work flow,¿ he says. Weintraub also warns that all too often, groups rely on the manager to be both judge and jury to resolve the conflict.

A manager's ability to work effectively with colleagues at all levels is directly linked to his overall performance and success. Effective managers establish strong interpersonal ties broadly so that when conflict arises, there is a basis of trust on which to address it successfully. Setting expectations from the beginning of a project, anticipating conflict and effectively addressing it in a timely manner will minimize the chance that difficulties will occur.

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