Leading New Teams and Difficult People

The Careereon Blogging Team
January 16, 2023

Teams consist of many different personalities, some more pronounced than others, all combining to hopefully make a productive, engaged, and positive unit. In most cases, leaders step into a team that is already formed, charged with leading that team to deliver on their business targets and goals. Good leaders get right to work to assess the strengths and weaknesses within their new team to begin crafting their strategy to get the most from the collective talent. It is important for a leader to exercise patience, avoiding the instinct to ‘get things done’ by jumping in and leveraging their experience, including the style and tactics that got them here. While that may seem like the quickest path to success, or between Points A and B, it will likely only serve a leader if Point A is being perceived as a ‘know-it-all’ and B is turning everyone off before they really get started. The measured approach, the long-term play, is the better formula for success, and one that can be done at a pace that can serve the business and give the leader the response and acceptance of the people they lead.

The Starting Line: Most new leaders are introduced, or introduce themselves, to a new team, sharing their history and track record, the places they have worked, their education, industry knowledge and so forth, all designed to establish a level of credibility with their new team. That is a good first step, but it is only half a step, or Step 1-A. It is important not to overlook Step 1-B, which is what you do in the coming days to complete a true First Step. The answer to who you are will be sized up after your intro, and if you are wise, before you set your expectations, create guidelines, share your projections for what the team can achieve, and how you will go about it. This is the time to establish your leadership presence, and drive an early perception as someone interested in learning, not telling. Despite the many great ideas and successful strategies you have employed throughout your career, now is not the time to launch your full creative and tactical arsenal. Until learning takes place on the team’s personnel, their individual track records, their collective output and achievements, and what their goals are, jumping in to make decisions and changes can be an immediate setback as team members may feel that it is more about you than about them. And a team needs to know that they matter, their thoughts and work matter, and together you will drive the success sought by all.

Assessment: Your early days and weeks are a ‘Honeymoon Period’ mostly, where everyone puts on a good face, keeps their cards close to the vest about any petty, even significant, issues and/or conflicts, as both leader and team feel one another out for who the other is and what they are getting. Before long, knowing business never pauses because of leadership and personnel changes, it is time to put your stamp on the team and for your organization. It could seem to your team that because you have yet to make any real changes, or ‘reset’ expectations for people, you are just what the doctor ordered, someone who will simply keep things going BAU: Business-As-Usual. You can almost hear the collective sigh of relief, if not jubilation, from your team. But what you know and they don’t is how between Intro-Day and today, you have not been looking at how to best keep things moving the same way, but have instead been talking to everyone, asking a lot of questions, and sizing up team dynamics and relationships to make a more comprehensive assessment of all aspects of the business, organization and your direct team, including the contributions each team member makes, how they do it, and how they all work together. Having done this, your plan is coming together on what you believe can be achieved, and what needs to happen to execute on a successful plan.

Leveraging Strengths: It is not terribly difficult to quickly identify whom your top performers are, even upon joining a new team, with most companies and organizations so data-driven that the performance of any team or individual can be looked at from a multitude of angles. Those data points are always only half the story. A longer view, including more historical data, can often show that today’s highest performers may not have been so in the past, while those who appear to be underperforming may once have been all-stars. There is a reason for that, and as the leader, it is up to you to find out why. It is not usually that the job has changed causing the downward trend in performance. It is most often the individual whose priorities have possibly changed, or whose motivation was once high but no longer is. Even in that case, there can be many reasons a worker, even those with great talent, lose the motivation to perform at their best, and no longer do. That presents great opportunity for a great leader to tap into their team’s internal motivation and help it rise to the surface. The combined strength of those motivated today and those you are able to bring back from the motivational graveyard can create a business juggernaut.

Trust-Transition: In your early weeks, you have done a great job to learn as much about your team as possible, while ensuring the business has continued to run, typically within the same processes and workflow that predates your arrival. That is to be expected until you have the information you need to take your team in a new direction under your leadership. Making it better, taking it to the next level, will take time, before which it needs to begin by creating a point of focus, the goal and plan for your team, and sharing how you plan to get there. Getting everyone on board will be the challenge, as you will no doubt have immediate allies who are either old school thinkers who assume the best, offer their trust and loyalty out of the gate, while some others are getting there at a measured pace. They may like what they’ve seen so far, and have offered hints or glimpses of their trust, giving more and more as the weeks have gone by. They are not fully there yet, but are coming along, which means you have gained the trust of a good percentage of your team. The remaining team members, you recognize, will prove to the be your challenge, and one you know will be important to overcome to realize true success, a collective team-success, that will drive business results built on team strength, a tight-knit business unit, highly engaged and supportive of you and each other.

Dissenters: Most of the team have either gotten fully behind you, or are close, opting to take that final leap of faith, based on the tempered approach you have taken. You have made the clear effort to build relationships and begin leading and managing people in a way that works for them. Mostly, that is what people are looking for in their leader, particularly when there has been a leadership change. But there are usually others, who are simply not there. While they may try to gain alliances in their mistrust or dissent, they are finding fewer and fewer takers, which is causing them both frustration and an even more active negativity that you realize may become a destructive force within what has all the makings of a solid, positive team. How you address and manage this will be key to your success. Some will tell you the correct path is the quick path, which is to eliminate the person from your team, either reassigning them outside your organization, or terminating them through a behavior-based performance management process. Doing so will give you and the dissenter a window of a couple of months where they either get on board or move on elsewhere. But is that the right path? You have moved so carefully to gain alliances within the team, is it wise to now set a precedent that those who dissent will be managed out? The answer is almost always no. In the short-term you eliminate that negative force, and that may seem like addition by subtraction. Should that person have influence among the team, perhaps based on tenure or ability, their sudden dismissal can rattle the rest of your team. They may reexamine their relationship with you as well, wondering how genuine you have been in your desire to have strong relationships, and invest in the success of each team member. Such a move may look right, but in the long run, it may come at a cost you are never able to recover. The smarter play is to craft a plan to bring that person along from where they are today, understand their reasons for their mistrust or lack of confidence, and make a concerted effort to overcome whatever misconceptions they may have that prevents them from moving forward with the rest of the team. Key points to understand are:

  • What is their work history and overall performance?

  • What was the relationship with your predecessor?

  • Did they apply and/or interview for what is now your role?

  • Is historical feedback one that points to a consistent dissenter no matter the issue or leader?

  • What is the motivation of the dissenter that you may be able to tap into to bring them to your side?

Having answered these questions and others you believe will give you the right amount and type of information that will help you build a working relationship with your dissenter, you meet with the team member or members you hope to move to the promoter side of the ledger. To begin, start the conversation on a more personal, yet unintrusive level. Offer information about yourself, your family, hobbies, and more, showing humility in all that you share so you are seen as a person first and manager second. Then move the conversation to the team member who will hopefully begin to open up, sharing similar information with you through which you can begin getting underneath the surface. You ask them how they are feeling about the team since your arrival, asking what you can do better to help them succeed. In these cases, you may get minimal, vague responses that do little to indicate that they are opening up. Be sure to have a number of questions from different angles since you have yet to learn how this person thinks. You can talk about business and strategy, asking for their insight, what they would do if they were the leader, what they feel the most important factors are impacting our business and how they should be addressed. Gaining their insights on team makeup, and input on strategy may be what they are looking for. Whether they thought they should have gotten your role, or have yet to see that you understand their value, asking for information on what they care about most and how they think about business may give them the lift they need to begin joining those who have already begun moving toward your corner.

Those tactics will get you there with many people in that resistant space. There still may be others who simply cannot get there. Whether they have told you why or not, you recognize that they have simply not gotten there, despite multiple attempts you have made to partner with them and give them every reason to join and believe in you. What to do next.

Transparency: Confront the behavior. You moved into leadership, including your current role as this team’s leader because you are good at what you do, and know how to motivate and get the best out of people. Understand that even after such effort to build a bridge that this person may not ever get there. While that is always their choice, and there is no behavior that would allow you to separate the employee, you can still address what you are seeing from them. Ask if your perception is reality. They may surprise you and tell you why that is the case. They may begin to backtrack from what has shown to be a stronger, more defiant stance. If they sense that you as their leader are being this honest and direct about their unwillingness to give you a chance to have a business relationship with them, they may think they are in trouble. While that is not the reaction you want, it is important that they realize that it cannot continue as it will negatively impact them and your team’s ability to realize its full potential. You want better for the person and for the team. Ask how you can help them to find something that may be a better fit for them, both in the style of leadership they prefer, and that will move their career forward. Explain that your sincere hope is that they find a way to remain with the team whose trust you have earned and in whom you have great faith in their ability to be successful. Advise that despite the behavior you have observed to this point, your primary concern is for them, their satisfaction at work, their career, and overall happiness. Close out the conversation by advising that you will still be their partner and advocate to help them move to wherever they feel suits them best.

Positive Outcomes: You feel great about how you have made sincere efforts to build a relationship with the dissenting team member, and have offered full transparency about your perception of them and their impact on the team. You have stayed positive, offering no hint of disappointment, frustration, nor have you drawn a line in the sand that they have crossed. You let them know that you respect them and their opinion, and that you will still help them take a positive step in their career even if not as part of your team. Only the rarest of circumstances will that fail to bring about a positive outcome. It should disarm the dissenter, allowing them to shake off the ‘reasonable doubt’ about your leadership and fairness toward them that they have been clinging to, and instead appreciate and possibly take you up on the offer to help them move along. In either case, you have built greater loyalty, whether toward you or toward the company, and have retained what may be a valuable employee who simply does not see the opportunity you see for them and the success you and they could have achieved together. It can be a great learning lesson for you both, and one that, even if not the perfect outcome you had hoped for, still moves the business and your team in the right direction.

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