CategoriesCasesProject Team

Case: The Prima Donna

The grade 9 wants to do everything himself. He simply does not trust us. Every time we use certain equations to come up with a solution, he must review everything we did in microscopic detail. He has to approve everything.

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Ben was placed in charge of a one-year project. Several of the work packages had to be accomplished by the Mechanical Engineering Department and required three people to be assigned full time for the duration of the project. When the project was originally proposed, the Mechanical Engineering Department manager estimated that he would assign three of his grade 7 employees to do the job. Unfortunately, the start date of the project was delayed by three months and the department manager was forced to assign the resources he planned to use on another project. The resources that would be available for Ben’s project at the new starting date were two grade 6’s and a grade 9. The department manager assured Ben that these three employees could adequately perform the required work and that Ben would have these three employees full time for the duration of the project. Furthermore, if any problems occurred, the department manager made it clear to Ben that he personally would get involved to make sure that the work packages and deliverables were completed correctly. Ben did not know any of the three employees personally. But since a grade 9 was considered as a senior subject matter expert pay grade, Ben made the grade 9 the lead engineer representing his department on Ben’s project. It was common practice for the senior-most person assigned from each department to act as the lead and even as an assistant project manager. The lead was often allowed to interface with the customers at information exchange meetings. By the end of the first month of the project, work was progressing as planned. Although most of the team seemed happy to be assigned to the project and team morale was high, the two grade 6 team members in the Mechanical Engineering Department were disenchanted with the project. Ben interviewed the two grade 6 employees to see why they were somewhat unhappy. One of the two employees stated:

The grade 9 wants to do everything himself. He simply does not trust us. Every time we use certain equations to come up with a solution, he must review everything we did in microscopic detail. He has to approve everything. The only time he does not micromanage us is when we have to make copies of reports. We do not feel that we are part of the team.

Ben was unsure how to handle the situation. Resources are assigned by the department managers and usually cannot be removed from a project without the permission of the department managers. Ben met with the Mechanical Engineering Department manager, who stated:

The grade 9 that I assigned is probably the best worker in my department. Unfortunately, he’s a prima donna. He trusts nobody else’s numbers or equations other than his own. Whenever co-workers perform work, he feels obligated to review everything that they have done. Whenever possible, I try to assign him to one-person activities so that he will not have to interface with anyone. But I have no other one-person assignments right now, which is why I assigned him to your project. I was hoping he would change his ways and work as a real team member with the two grade 6 workers, but I guess not. Don’t worry about it. The work will get done, and get done right. We’ll just have to allow the two grade 6 employees to be unhappy for a little while.

Ben understood what the department manager said but was not happy about the situation. Forcing the grade 9 to be removed could result in the assignment of someone with lesser capabilities, and this could impact the quality of the deliverables from the Mechanical Engineering Department. Leaving the grade 9 in place for the duration of the project will alienate the two grade 6 employees and their frustration and morale issues could infect other team members.

What options are available to Ben?

Ben finds himself in a challenging situation, with the dynamics within the Mechanical Engineering Department posing threats to both team morale and the project’s success. First, he should consider scheduling an open discussion with the Mechanical Engineering team. By addressing concerns in a team meeting, the grade 9 employee might gain insight into the impact of his behavior, fostering understanding and potentially leading to positive change. Further, a one-on-one discussion with the grade 9 employee might reveal underlying reasons for his micromanagement style and allow for a collaborative approach to finding a solution.

To enhance team cohesion, Ben could introduce conflict resolution or team-building workshops tailored for the Mechanical Engineering Department team. These sessions might help in understanding each member’s value, building trust, and encouraging collaboration. Seeing the grade 9’s expertise, it might be beneficial for the team if he could channel it positively by mentoring the grade 6 employees, promoting their professional growth.

Another strategy might be to redefine roles, clearly defining responsibilities to prevent micromanagement. Assigning independent tasks where the grade 9 employee can delve deep without overlapping with the work of grade 6 employees could reduce friction. Moreover, regular check-ins could be instrumental in monitoring progress and ensuring alignment within the team. Introducing an anonymous feedback loop could also allow team members to express their concerns, helping Ben keep a pulse on team dynamics.

If interactions remain problematic, appointing a liaison could be a solution. This intermediary, perhaps from outside the Mechanical Engineering Department, could help streamline communications and manage workflow coordination. However, if all else fails and the project’s success is at risk, Ben may need to consider involving higher management for guidance or intervention.

Lastly, while a delicate decision, if the interpersonal dynamics severely hinders progress, Ben might have to reevaluate the team’s structure. This could mean a discussion with the department manager about potential reassignments, either replacing the grade 9 or adding resources to stabilize the team.

Whatever path Ben chooses, he must ensure the project’s success, prioritize team well-being, and maintain open lines of communication with the Mechanical Engineering Department manager to ensure solutions are aligned with organizational goals.

Is there a risk in leaving the situation as is?

Ben faces significant risks if he decides to leave the current team dynamics unaddressed. Most immediately, he might witness a further decline in the morale of his team, especially among the two grade 6 employees. When team members feel undervalued and sidelined, their enthusiasm and dedication can wane, potentially compromising the quality and timeliness of their work. This lowered morale doesn’t just stay contained—it has the potential to ripple out, spreading negativity to other team members and affecting the overall harmony and effectiveness of the entire project group.

Furthermore, the grade 9’s micromanagement tendencies can serve as a bottleneck, reducing the team’s overall productivity. If he continues to scrutinize every detail, tasks may get delayed, leading to missed deadlines and a project that’s continually playing catch-up. Over time, the mounting frustrations and lack of autonomy might even push the grade 6 employees to consider other opportunities, leading to potential turnover. Replacing skilled team members isn’t just costly; it also means spending valuable time onboarding and training newcomers.

On a more intangible level, the grade 6 employees’ professional growth is at stake. By overshadowing their work and decisions, they’re denied the chance to learn from their experiences, halting their development and potentially limiting their contributions to the company in the long run. And it’s not just about personal growth—by not giving them the freedom to think independently, the team could miss out on innovative solutions that the grade 6 employees might bring to the table.

Relationships within the team could also deteriorate over time. The persistent tension between the grade 6 and grade 9 employees could evolve into long-lasting resentment, complicating future collaborations and potentially spilling over into interactions with other departments. As these internal conflicts become more evident, the project’s reputation, and by extension, the reputation of the organization, might suffer. External stakeholders, when catching wind of these issues, might reconsider their trust in the team’s ability to deliver.

Given the countless of risks stemming from an unresolved conflict, it becomes imperative for Ben to take proactive measures, ensuring the team’s health and the project’s success.

Is there a risk in removing the grade 9?

In contemplating the removal of the grade 9 from the project, Ben faces a web of complex challenges and potential setbacks. The immediate concern revolves around the grade 9’s expertise. As a senior subject matter expert, he holds a reservoir of specialized knowledge and skills that aren’t easily replaced. Removing him could introduce a knowledge void, potentially compromising the quality of work on the project. Moreover, replacing him would mean navigating the inevitable delays associated with onboarding a new team member. This newcomer would need time to grapple with the project’s intricacies, which could derail the project’s timeline. Furthermore, this process would entail additional training efforts, consuming time and resources that could have been directed elsewhere.

Beyond logistical concerns, the decision carries emotional and relational implications. For one, there might be team members or other departments that value the grade 9’s contribution. Removing him might spark resentment or skepticism about management’s decisions, potentially creating an undercurrent of job insecurity among peers. This move could also strain relations between Ben and the Mechanical Engineering Department. Given that the latter assigns resources, taking such a step without mutual agreement could foster conflict, jeopardizing future collaborations.

Additionally, the grade 9 himself might not take kindly to being removed. Feeling targeted or unfairly treated could breed resentment and affect his morale and performance in other projects or roles within the organization. This sentiment is especially concerning given the Mechanical Engineering Department manager’s regard for him as probably the best worker in the department. His removal, while mitigating interpersonal issues, could potentially raise concerns regarding the quality of the project’s outcomes, especially if his replacement doesn’t match his expertise.

External perceptions worsen these internal challenges. Customers or stakeholders familiar with the grade 9’s expertise might have anchored their confidence in the project’s success to his involvement. His sudden removal could erode their trust and belief in the project’s outcomes. Furthermore, this move could unintentionally send a message that disagreements or personal conflicts can lead to removals, potentially stifling open communication and genuine feedback in the future.

In light of these multifaceted risks, Ben’s decision should be based on careful consideration, weighing short-term relief against the broader ramifications for the project and the team’s long-term dynamics.

This case, and questions, is take from the book “Project Management Case Studies – Sixth Edition” – 2022, by Harold Kerzner.

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