D. Caulfield

Techniques for Difficult Team Members

Leading a team is difficult - it's why people love or hate the job. Where a team member incorporates themselves into the people and culture around them, the team lead drives that assimilation and culture. They must understand that each person has a different personality, and therefore each team culture is different.

If this wasn't enough of a challenge, team leaders need to handle difficult members of their team. In my opinion, this is the most challenging part of the job. A team member who acts in a way that is destructive to their team them means your team suffers. In the medium to long term, if the team keeps suffering, then you have ultimately failed as the team lead.

Fortunately, there are methods and techniques to manage such people. However, it is not a simple or pleasant task. Effectively managing difficult people comes with knowledge and practice. Expect to make a few mistakes along the way. Keep the goal clear in your mind - to develop a high performing team. If you reflect on it, then you will make better judgements when it comes to difficult scenarios in your team.

Below are some of the scenarios I have come across and how I think they should be dealt with.

Proud Seniors

Every team has at least one or more seniors on the team. Let's call him Rob. Rob's role is to lead the team in a technical manner and make intelligent and informed decisions for the team while coaching less experienced members. Above all, Rob sets a standard for the team and makes sure the standard is upheld.

As Uncle Ben said, 'With great power, comes great responsibility'. When a leader within the team abuses their position, or does not know how to deal effectively with others, then it can damage other members of the team.

I have often seen Rob act inappropriately towards his team. Sometimes Rob is loud and outspoken and happy to talk over the more junior members of the team. Rob's opinions are often the only ones heard, while he snaps or condescends other opinions. This can be a natural response -  Rob feels like he has the best opinion because he is most experienced. As a result, any challenge is personal.

In a high performing team, each individual must be comfortable to speak out and voice their opinions without judgement. Even juniors who have little experience often give valuable insight into the simple things that the rest of the team have become accustomed to. You need to work to allow Rob's experience to come through in decision making, while making sure everyone on the team is comfortable voicing their opinions.

Resolution

Remember - your goal is to develop a high performing team. In the above scenario the relationship between Rob and the rest of the team is broken. So the question is, how do we repair and maintain that relationship?

In my experience, having Rob work closely with everyone else on the team is the quickest way to mend the relationships. Rather than assigning tasks to Rob and have him work by himself, assign the task to a more junior member and get Rob to oversee it. In this way, Rob will be forced to work on his communication and develop an understanding with the rest of the team.

Over time relationships grow stronger and the more junior team members voice their opinions more often since they are now more comfortable speaking with Rob. Even if Rob's attitude does not soften, at the very least everyone will know his personality well enough to be comfortable challenging it.

Too many egos spoil the broth

Working on a team with one Rob is challenging. A team with multiple Robs can be nearly impossible to handle at times. I have not worked directly on such a team, but I have experienced it by proxy in my managerial days when I had meetings with individual teams.

The most common place egos clash is in the beginning, when the team is being formed. The four team stages of team formation are commonly known as "Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing". (ref https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuckman%27s_stages_of_group_development ). When a team begins to form, people aren't really sure what position they have in the 'hierarchy' of the team. They're not sure what kind of personalities surround them or each other's backgrounds.

Once the team have been 'formed', in other words, once they recognise who will be on their team going forward, then they enter the 'storming' phase. This is the phase where team members challenge each other and voice their opinions. This is also the phase that is most painful for the team lead.

As the team try to familiarise themselves with the other team members, they spark and argue with ideas other team members put forward. This is amplified further in job sectors with a high competition - software for example. Each individual on the team wants to be correct and will stand by their views no matter what.

Resolution

Don't worry! This is a natural part of the team's journey and it will pass.

Once your team gets to know each other, egos will settle down and your team will enter the 'norming' phase where they get comfortable with each other and begin working as a team towards the common goal.

In the meantime, it is an opportunity for you to practice conflict resolution. Ever wonder what it would be like to be a politician? Here's your chance!

If you find that the team are still not settling in with each other, then it might be time to bring in some team practices in order to make decisions and resolve their arguing. You need to discuss this directly with the team (at a retro is a good time) and brainstorm some ways to achieve decisions.

Some ideas for achieving resolutions is to take a team vote, refer to an external expert (if one exists), lay out the pros and cons of the arguments, or refer to the technical lead within the team.

Unproductive Members

In any industry and on any team, there are some people who are highly productive and driven, and others who are the polar opposite. I once discovered someone who, hired as a software developer, had merged about 5 commits in the few years they worked in that company. In total, their code contribution amounted to a maximum of 100 lines of code. Let's call this person Mike.

The Mikes of the world are lazy, unproductive and always have an excuse why their tasks are not completed. Believe it or not, Mike could be the most dangerous and destructive person on your team. All your other team members look at Mike and see the lack of focus and output coming from him. When a difficult job comes, they wonder why they should be bothered to do a good job if Mike is getting away with doing nothing.

Furthermore, Mike brings down the team moral. He is taking up a space which could be filled by a worthwhile and valuable team member. A brand new junior just out of college is far more valuable than Mike. At least a junior is willing to work their way up the ladder and assimilate into the team. Mike has no such goals.

Resolution

How do we deal with someone like Mike? Believe it or not, Mike's problem may not be his lack of knowledge - it is his lack of accountability. Mike has gotten into the habit of working the minimal amount and discovered that by working poorly and making excuses, he can reduce his work load and take it easy.

So the question is - how to increase Mike's accountability? It's quite simple - don't let Mike work by himself!

Remember how Mike made just 5 commits at his company over a couple of years? What do you think the scrum master did? He continued to assign small tasks to Mike and leave him by himself without anyone working him. Mike had no accountability to his team, so he didn't hold himself accountable. To this day, Mike is known for doing the smallest amount of work, and nobody wants to work with him.

As team lead, you can fix this surprisingly quickly. Team Mike up with one of the more productive members (Vicky) who can guide Mike and hold him accountable. Vicky can support Mike in working on his tasks in a 'pair-programming' manner. This will prevent Mike from skipping off for a few hours or getting distracted easily.

For each of Mike's tasks, ensure that he is not working by himself - always pair him with someone else. You might think that this is a waste of Vicky's time. In the short term, this may be true. But in the long term, Mike will develop a discipline and become more productive by himself. He will gradually gain back the trust of the team and hold himself to the same accountability as the rest of the team. Over the long term, the team will benefit greatly from having the extra productive team member.

Side note: There is an argument to be made that nobody in the team should work by themselves, but that's for a different post.

Just..not...interested

In any team, there are jobs that nobody wants to do. Documentation, bugs, support, admin, testing...the list goes on. As the team lead, it should be one of your focuses to provide each team member with a balanced workload according to their skill set.

Notice how I didn't say that everyone should have an equal workload - that is a bad tactic for a high performing team. As a quick example, juniors learn quickest by getting involved in some of the boring work (testing, documentation). Whereas seniors are kept interested by removing this work from them as much as possible.

Resolution

Each person on the team needs work that is challenging according to their expertise. If one of your team says they are bored of their work, ask them politely what they find boring or tedious. Then work on speeding up the completion of that work and get them onto something they would rather do.

Look back over their previous tasks. Have they been assigned work on numerous occasions that does not challenge them? Can this type of work be shared or shifted to a more junior member? Make a note that their work needs to be more varied in the future.

Unprofessional Team Member

I find this the worst problem to have on the team. It is one thing to be unproductive or difficult to talk to, but acting unprofessionally is the most obvious and painful characteristic someone can have. Let's call our unprofessional team member John.

'Unprofessional' is a catch-all category. There are many ways John can be unprofessional. Snarky, tardy, insulting, offensive, rude..the list goes on.

John is difficult to have at meetings, especially with people external to the team. He says things on a whim without thinking about them and often insults or speaks out of turn. Sometimes, he is downright insulting.

Resolution

Since you are the team lead, it is difficult (and unadvised) for you to single out John and request that he acts more professionally. If John feels insulted, you have done a disservice to your team and damaged a valuable relationship with one of your team members.

The best thing to do is bite your tongue for now, and have a chat with the manager in charge of personnel. This could be a HR manager or more often a line manager. Frame your conversation as a 'concern' rather than a complaint. "I think John could improve his attitude in meetings by doing x".

The danger in dealing with an unprofessional team member yourself is that it could backfire on you and John could complain about you, or you could lose your cool and become unprofessional yourself.

In my case, I have a sharp temper (which regularly gets tested), so when I hear a statement that is completely out of line, I bit my tongue and either ignore it, or if it is interfering with the team's work and progress, make a note and discuss with my line manager at our monthly catchup meeting.

The worst thing I could do in these situations is to snap back. Although I may be in the right and the other person in the wrong, it is too dangerous that I say something damaging which could affect the team as a whole.