Two individuals interact in ways that others might consider inappropriate during project working meetings. Dealing with it in a project / program context is can be somewhat different from dealing with this inside the context of inside normal organizational reporting relationships.
Although based on a real situation, all the personal and company names have been changed.
We were meeting over a working lunch with Jasmine D’Lexis in Insure Bank’s company cafeteria. Jasmine was the program director for $50 million plus, multiyear software development program for this large financial institution. We were talking customizing our “Asking Effective Questions” training for her program staff.
Tom Wheellock, one of her program managers, carrying only a cup of coffee, sat down with us at the table.
He sighed. “Sorry folks, but I need a few minutes of Jasmine’s time, it is kind of urgent since it could come out in the steering committee meeting scheduled for right after lunch.”
We started to get up, but Jasmine motioned to us to sit back down.
“Just act as if your ears have been turned off for a few minutes”
When she turned back to Tom, he started right in.
“Well they are at it again, two business users that I really dislike. They have had one of my lead programmers in tears this morning. I just spent the last 15 minutes calming Catrin back down.”
Jasmine responded, with a “putting myself into listening mode” tone in her voice.
“So tell me what happened.”
Tom looked over her shoulder for a moment or two, collecting his thoughts. He well knew that there was a “don’t waste my valuable time with stuff you should handle personally as a PM” reality underneath her “being patient” tone.
He started in.
“One, we’ve been working on the visual skeletons for the user interfaces for this part of the project in the past week. You know how we approach it. Throw rough interfaces together, call in a number of users to sit beside a programmer and go through each interface, fleshing it out in such a way that make sense for the actual users.”
Jasmine nodding, said “And …”
“Well, as I was saying, my two favourite business users to dislike, Jennifer and Dartang, insisted that we do their session with them together. I would’ve cut it off at the pass, knowing how they are constantly sniping at one another for no reason that we on the project can understand. But Catrin went ahead and scheduled the session, just as she is expected to.”
Jasmine, sitting back a little, said “Oh no, I can see what this might be going, given what I know about those two.”
Tom went on.
“Well, listening to Catrin, it started off as usual with those two – what Jennifer thought made sense, Dartang thought was nonsense and vice versa. It went on like that for close to 30 minutes. They had not even worked their way through half of the first screen. Only 12 interface screens to go!”
Jasmine, leaning forward slightly, asked “What were they going on about – did they have problems with the underlying business logic or was it just that they wanted things presented in different ways?”
Tom, flinching slightly, responded, “I honestly don’t know. By the time, Catrin found me, she was close to choking back tears. So first, I just calmed her down. Then I asked what happened.”
Jasmine, quietly, “and she said …”.
“It seemed that the only thing the two of them agreed on was that Catrin was dumb to waste their time in this way. They seemed to gang up and starting dumping on her. According to Catrin, they were using disrespectful language, both to one another and to her. She talked about them using words like idiot and bumpkin and ignoramus and language that was much worse to each other and to her. She is pretty upset, and talking about going to HR about it all.”
Jasmine sat up straighter and said “HR? That is just what we don’t need right now on your project. You are already a bit behind on your delivery schedule. Once HR get involved in things like this, things will get extremely formal and everything will slow down.”
Tom looked down at this coffee cup, and then up at her.
“Well, you must have caught the CEO’s recent Intranet video broadcast about respect in the work place, and the lack of tolerance for harassment of any kind. Catrin put the way they treated her and each other during this session together with that. She thinks were being disrespectful to her, as well as harassing one another.”
Jasmine look away for a second. When she turned back, she made make direct eye contact with Tom.
“OK. Let’s split this into 2 parts. First, how serious is Catrin about making a formal disrespectful behavior / harassment complaint to HR? Second, how seriously bad was their behavior really?”
Tom, stiffening up in his chair, said, “I have got Catrin contained about the complaint thing for the moment. I told her that effective immediately she was not to work directly with either one of them again, either alone or together, without me being in the room. I committed to dig into the complaint process and get back to her about next steps around this. She agreed to that for now.”
Jasmine, relaxing slightly, said, “Good, that gives us some time. So now, how serious do you think Jennifer’s and Dartang’s behavior really was?”
Tom, placing both his hands squarely in front of him, said, “I can’t really say, since I was not in the room at the time and neither was anyone else. Catrin is normally very level headed. She handles this kind of stress well enough. It really takes something to set her off like this. We all also know that Jennifer and Dartang have a history of publicly insulting one another, and saying things to one another that make the folks around them cringe.”
Tom, took a sip of his coffee, and went on. “Catrin is amazing in some ways. After she cooled down, she even pointed out that even under their nastiness, their different views on things suggested some ways of reshaping this first interface data in ways that would be useful to different kinds of users. So there she was, upset as hell and still turning spiteful stuff into useful ideas. I complimented her on doing so.”
Jasmine responded, “She would. I know you think that she will make a great team lead. But that is a conversation for another time. Right now, we going to handle this ongoing Jennifer-Dartang dynamic, especially given the CEO’s video.”
Tom, laughing a little, popped a French fry off Jasmine’s plate into his mouth. He went on after he swallowed.
“Well, I like to fry them both in hot peanut oil and serve them to some non-deserving goose. But that is just wishful thinking on my part. What I have done is have a quiet conversation with each of my team leads, pointing out that it is not a good thing to schedule meetings with the two of them together. Everyone agreed, without even asking why. Like I said, their dynamic is pretty public knowledge.”
“Great, Tom. I guess dealing the longer-term Jennifer-Dartang dynamic has to be in my court. I will need to have a private conversation with each of their directors. They are the folks who really have to deal with it. I don’t want it to become a project issue with HR. In the meantime, as far as your team is concerned, separation is the name of the game when it comes to those two.”
Tom, his whole posture more relaxed now, said “Ok, I will leave the HR complaint thing in your court. But I think you should have that no meeting with Jennifer and Dartang together private conversation with the other program managers as well.”
Jennifer frowned, and said, “I am not sure about that yet. Don’t want to make this a public issue from the program’s point of view. I need to talk with Jennifer’s and Dartang’s immediate bosses first. Do you know of any such scheduled meetings with Jennifer and Dartang in the next weeks outside of your team?”
Tom said, “Nope, but then I would not know. But my guess is that my team is the only one at a place where these kinds of meetings with these two are likely to be needed in the next weeks.”
“Ok, favour then please, Tom. Ask the other PMs quietly if this is the case. If the other teams do need to meet with these two, ask the PM involved to contact me directly ASAP.”
Standing up, Tom said “OK, and Jasmine, if you could loop back with Catrin directly yourself in a day or so, and let her know that you appreciate her ability to rise about it all, I think that by keeping her from having to work with either of them for a while, and you acknowledging her, she will not move on going to HR herself.”
“Done, Tom. I will make that happen. I also will cut off anything about this that might come up in the Steering Committee after lunch, or at least redirect it. Somehow, I doubt it will, given our agenda.”
Once Tom had left, Jasmine turned back to us and grimaced, “Seems like people issues are the toughest part of my job. Appreciate your discretion about this, please. Now let’s get back our business. About you running those asking questions under conditions of stress training sessions that I want for the folks in my program team. What kind of break can you give me on pricing? I am thinking running it for all my business analysts and team leads?”
We started to negotiate.
Sometimes conflicts on projects need to be “bounded” rather than resolved. Do you think this way of handling this Jennifer-Dartang conflict will prove to be effective for Jasmine’s team? How else could it have been handled? Looking forward to your comments below.