When I was a younger (i.e. ‘naive’) manager, I eagerly accepted a position to lead a team I knew little about. I’m convinced that’s why I got the offer.
I concluded after the first week that my interviewers had been less-than-forthcoming about the team atmosphere and the willingness to embrace change.
Soon my leadership was undermined, my instructions were ignored, and I was afraid my career had been sabotaged. It felt like I was in a turf war with key players on the team.
It was obvious we were heading toward a showdown and the possible outcomes were looking grim. Something had to be done if there was to be any hope for the business (and my career) to remain intact.
I didn’t know what I was doing at the time, but this five step process to dealing with difficult team members came out of this experience and has served me well.
Asking this question is like jumping down the rabbit hole of Alice in Wonderland. When I searched out the answer to that question I came up with a dozen viable answers. I chased each one down.
When I came to the end of my adventure it all boiled down to 2 people causing 80% of my problems. One team member was afraid of change while the other was a bad fit for the team (more on that later). Once I had that figured out it was time to move on to the second question.
My instinct is to say the problem isn’t me, but I know better. Have I confirmed that they understand my expectations? Have I confirmed that they know how to do what I’m asking them to do? Am I unreasonable in my expectations? Are they fully equipped to perform? There were more questions like this.
After answering these questions I concluded that my ownership percentage was approaching 20%. After taking action to address my responsibilities it is time to move on to the next step.
These two team members were very different in their motivation for raising a ruckus. Therefore, I had to handle them very differently.
Team member one had been in his role for a long time and hoped to retire soon. He was afraid having a management change would derail his plans. I was surprised to hear his concerns, but more importantly I was able to calm his fears.
I explained that he is a leader among his peers. If the team was to be successful they needed to see him support and align with me. His negative reaction to my plans were undermining my leadership and causing the team to spin their wheels. The lightbulb went off for him, he apologized, and gave me his committed support.
Guy two thought he should have been promoted and received my job. He didn’t get the job because he was a manipulator and had a barely-enough-to-stay-employed work ethic. The hiring manager knew this.
Our meeting was a lot different and we had a much more direct conversation. I gave him a minute to tell me how he thought I was doing. After thanking him for his input I gave him specific actions he had taken to undermine my leadership.
He was bringing down the team’s performance. I firmly explained my expectations. I asked him to get on board and support my objectives.
In both scenarios above I actively recruited the two guys at the end of our meeting. The first conversation ended by explaining that I needed his leadership to help the team get better and grow the business. He had been around for the “good ol’ days” and was ready to revive the energy of those days. The change of attitude was almost instantaneous.
The second conversation ended with a different kind of recruitment request. I told him I needed him to be aligned with my leadership or if he wanted a place on the team. It was a shot across the bow and he knew it.
Team member two improved for a week or two, but his pride got in the way. He felt the atmosphere of the team shift away from his manipulative control. I confronted him on performance issues.
He resisted change. I started a performance improvement plan. Six weeks after that difficult conversation he gave me his notice. He threw me a few empty reminders of how irreplaceable he was and the vast knowledge that would leave with him.
The team’s success took off once this guy left.
Having these types of conversations are difficult. While they aren’t conversations to rush into, you cannot afford to avoid them. Proceed through these five steps with pure intentions, protect the other person’s dignity, and resolve to do the right thing. And then – do it.
How do you deal with difficult team members? Let me know by joining the conversation on Twitter!