Project Team Principle #7: Disrupting respectfully

Doing things the same way, or allowing habits to constrain the team’s creativity or opportunity will lead to disaster; and allowing complacency or personal problems to evolve disrupts harmony and builds contempt not trust.

Project Team Principle #7: Disrupting respectfully

Project Team Principle #7: Disrupting respectfully

Teams often use the same processes because they’ve always done it that way.

Even if it isn’t a “Zombie Process”, they continue that way even though they may know or suspect there might be better and more advanced techniques or processes for achieving that goal.

Do you stifle your own criticism for the fear that it will create tension or lower morale?

In your team, you might observe a team-mate using an ineffective process or outdated approach.  Do you let them keep doing it because it’s what they know? Would you raise this as a problem in an attempt to bring greater quality to the team’s output?

Do you fear giving bad news “up the line”?

It’s always a difficult choice between raising an issue that may cause friction or allowing habits to constrain the team’s function.

Create harmony by surfacing dissonance!

There’s a common misconception that team harmony is achieved by never exposing conflict, questioning someone, putting an alternate point of view, or highlighting poor (or even suboptimal) performance.

Perhaps Sid Vicious’ quote is a little extreme and not as respectful as I’d like, but it captures the spirit that we should take to our hearts:

“Undermine their pompous authority, reject their moral standards, make anarchy and disorder your trademarks. Cause as much chaos and disruption as possible but don’t let them take you ALIVE.” – Sid Vicious (bass guitarist and vocalist of the influential punk group, the Sex Pistols)

Sometimes we have to take an extreme perspective to help us see what changes need to be made.  The perspective doesn’t define the approach. I’m not suggesting that bickering, personal attacks or tattle-tail behaviour is productive to the team.  But neither is constant agreement or blind complimenting.

I believe it’s important for team members to be “respectfully disruptive” to surface dissonance and resolve tension.  The key is to do it “respectfully” because it must never get to the point where it is personal criticism or attack. This is similar to the case in sports where players should “play the ball, not the man”.

That is why Project Action Principle #4 is so important. When the group is allowed to progress on its natural order of teaming, they would develop a comfort level and respect that allows team members to raise issues that are conflicting for the betterment of the project and team.

“Respectively disruptive” may seem like a small action in the grand scheme of a project, but it serves as a trigger for actions like checks & balances that will better enable the project to achieve a positive outcome.

Being “respectfully disruptive” is actually more likely to create harmony than just accepting behaviour that doesn’t work.

Stop being so sensitive!

It takes courage and a strong sense of maturity to address obvious problems that you see in the workplace. Calling out things that don’t make sense or don’t work seems very logical and reasonable. But it can often label you as a troublemaker. I was once called out by an ex-boss for “disrupting the harmony of the team” because I was asking too many questions.

It’s very common for people to interpret a question as a negative response to something that was done or to view it as personal criticism to their work.

If I ask “did you try xxx or yyyy” in response to a statement of a project problem or blockage, it’s very common for project managers to interpret this as “why didn’t you try xxx or yyyy”. In other words, what began as a simple diagnostic question, ends up being interpreted as an implied criticism or accusation. The most common response is for project manager’s to recommend themselves.

And, in some organisations, there is the need to always report everything as good news. Meaning all news gets framed in the most positive light when possible reporting upwards.

This attitude and action of only reporting good news to superiors, only has short term gains because no project every runs as planned, so there is always bad news to be shared. The sad outcome is that when reality surfaces, it is often too late to do anything to turn the project outcome into a positive without severe delays and/or resources pumped into the project.

Problems don’t get better with age

Bad practices being repeated, bad news not being communicated, alternative approaches being resisted, and bureaucratic processes being pointless: none of these situations get better with age.  They just create more disharmony.

How can an intent to create harmony and teamwork result in worse behaviour?  By ignoring reality.  This creates the kind of “well, that’s how we do it around here” thinking that allows bad behaviour to continue.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing – Edmund Burke (Irish Statesman in the nineteenth century)

Again, this is perhaps an extreme quote, but the essence is still true for a professional project management practice. We must do more than nothing (i.e. do something) to combat behaviour that doesn’t add value. Hence, it is important for all team members to disrupt respectfully.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of mediocrity is that competent people say nothing – Adam Russell

Team Charter Clause #7: I will respectfully and appropriately disrupt

Courage and accountability are required to give us the strength to do this, and only each team member can decide what disruptive actions are required. This clause can help as a guide.


I know that some or all members of the team will not have the same opinion about different aspects of the project.  From time-to-time, I will be at odds with the team about a decision or outcome. 

I will respect the team’s decision-making authority, although I know that there will be circumstances when the team may make the wrong decision.

Whenever I feel at odds with the team, I will surface these differences of opinion in a constructive and respectful way with my team mates. I will also work to resolve these differences in a way that creates lasting harmony amongst the team.

I will be sure that the passion I feel in raising this opinion is matched by the work I will do to gather information, evidence and reasoning that may persuade my team-mates to change their minds and agree with my position. 

I will watch to ensure that the project team does not get too comfortable in its execution and will find ways of respectfully and playfully call attention to harmful or self-destructive behaviours.

Above all, I will ensure that no matter how well the team is performing, how many successes the team achieves, or how much praise the team is getting, we will never fall victim to the sin of “believing our own bullshit”.


Next Steps

What are your thoughts on the objective of this clause? Do you have any suggestions for modifications to the wording?

What do you think your team’s reaction would be to this Charter if you introduced it to your current project(s)?

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