• Ashwin Nazareth

Team Management: Turning Enemies into Allies


Continuing from last week’s theme of taking on a new leadership role, we explore the process of joining an organization and taking over the leadership of an existing team.


So what should I know, going in?

The first thing you should grasp is the fact that in most situations, you are walking in at somewhat of a disadvantage. The existing team has had time to form into cliques, cohorts, and cahoots. In addition to this, you will inevitably be compared against their former leader. If their previous manager was a hero to them, they’re going to feel a distinct sense of loss, abandonment, or anxiety over the future of their team and their individual career development. On the flip side, if their previous leader was not very popular, they may have an overwhelming sense of apprehension about you being a different flavor of the same poison.


Team members who 'act out' are often quickly labeled as ‘difficult employees’, and while they can take up a lot of your time and effort as a leader, consider that they are that way because they are the most critical thinking, passionate, and opinionated members of your new team. Turning the adjectives on their head like this can bring new light to why these ‘enemies’ could actually be your greatest 'allies' and are the key to unlocking the full potential of your new team’s performance - as long as you can get them to work with you.


Down to business

The first thing you need to do is to determine which one(s) of your team members are going to take extra work to win over and identify the source of their apprehension. There are a few general types of behaviors to look out for:


The Activist

Believes they fight for what is right, often finding perceived injustices against them or their colleagues, and then spends an inordinate amount of time ‘lobbying’ collective interests with you, basically a one-man-band employee union. Whether or not the rest of the team sees this person as their (un)elected representative to voice concerns, you’ll find the activist seeking out sources of discord and channeling it to you like a well-oiled complaints desk.


If you can push aside your ego and the distraction of consistently having the ‘why’ of your decisions questioned, it can be relatively handy to have a permanent check-and-balance in place, think of them as your personal internal audit department. What’s important with this type of team member is to build trust and accountability around all your decisions. Your track record will allow you to make an express covenant with them regarding when you can pull a ‘my-way-or-the-highway’ card when absolutely necessary eg. near a project deadline because they already trust that you know what you are doing and have everyone's best interests at heart (general advice: you want to avoid doing this as much as possible in your day to day management anyway). This person is often also very good at collecting ideas for new products/projects. Team grievances on tools, products, and workflows can also turn into powerful improvement ideas for the business and this is something you really want to consider farming out to The Activist in exchange for points towards those fuzzy ‘embodies core values’ sections of their year-end scorecards.


The Upstart

This person believes that they should’ve been promoted into your current position. Considers you to be less than equal to them and harbors resentment towards management for their ‘mistake’ of hiring you rather than promoting from within. Thing is, this type of behavior isn’t necessarily a delusion - there are multiple situations where they’re actually correct in their assumptions and they were indeed unfairly passed over for a promotion. The history and context driving their behavior matters.


Spend some time talking about your background and learning about theirs - they need to understand what you’re all about and come to their own realization of why you were selected for the job. Oftentimes the outcome of this would be them realizing you have something to offer and establish a mentoring dynamic between you and them. A method of showing The Upstart that you're serious about their development is to begin giving them the additional authority they crave. Under your supervision, you can guide them towards proving to upper management that they're ready for the next step. For example, having them help out coaching the other team members who are struggling or assisting you on a limited basis for escalation cases or doing first-reviews for quality assurance (there is an assumption here that a true Upstart has both a high level of competency and a passion for helping others). This also feeds well into them being a part of your formal succession plan when the time comes.


The Lifer

This person loves the status quo and has the highest resistance to change - including accepting you as their leader. You’ll find this long-tenured member of the team the most stable and comfortable of them all, probably being there since the inception of the department (or even the company!). Previously lauded as ‘loyal’ in traditional civil service or banking jobs, they would have received lifetime achievement awards for 'staying put', this type of career pathway has fallen out of favor in the world of fast-paced high-high potential talent management. One of the reasons behind their longevity would be this employee has mastered the art of meeting their targets and modulating their performance to allow them to coast the fine line of minimum performance and labor law protections.


Thing is, just because someone’s work ethic is ‘retro’ doesn’t necessarily mean that’s a bad thing. After all, if they’re comfortable with staying in the same place, someone’s got to do the work anyway and who better than a person who can get the job done with their eyes closed. If they’re consistently meeting their set KPI, then perhaps the issue is with the goals and not the employee’s performance.


Because this person is so fixated on the past, they can be a useful source of knowledge about what has or hasn’t been tried before when dealing with issues. Consider them a human repository of JIRA tickets. This person is by default a custodian of the past and what better way to keep them engaged than to formalize their role as such. Give them projects documenting processes and raising anecdotes during project meetings where they contrast the current proposals against what’s been tried before. Make them the process workflow historian, of sorts.


The Anarchist

This employee just wants to see everything burn, they wield chaos, espionage, sabotage, and revolt in order to see everything come to a ruinous conclusion. This could be driven by any number of things - dispassion, burnout, or perhaps just a proclivity towards anarchy. This personality type is the hardest to build trust with - and more often than not is the type of person that ends up eventually leaving the team, either on their own or due to a series of disciplinary actions.


The thing is you have to objectively try to establish what actual value this person brings to the table to see if they are actually worth saving. Why were they hired in the first place? This rebel-without-a-cause would often be at odds with the rest of the team, who sees them as a disruption to workplace harmony. Next, decide how much effort you are willing to dedicate towards coaxing them back towards the rest of the team. Here at DiCoRm, we don’t believe in the term ‘bad employee’ but we do believe in 'poor fit'. You should never sacrifice the trust of the rest of the team just to bring one person, who doesn’t want to be there, back into the fold. Instead, be candid with them about their disruptive behavior, and give them every opportunity to change their minds and harmonize by themselves and if you end up showing them the door, try to be gracious and give them all the necessary support on their way out. Kindness here can go a long way towards someone finding their purpose elsewhere in the industry.


This all sounds absolutely terrifying!

It can be but bear in mind that this sort of dynamic is very common when you ‘inherit’ a team. And also remember that these types of personalities would likely constitute less than 20% of your headcount, with managing the rest being a walk in the park. Don’t look too hard for 'symptoms' though, or you may start imagining things, just remember to be authentic and honest - and these characters will present themselves to you naturally over the course of your leadership journey. Best of luck with your new position and do DM us on LinkedIn or reach out to us at DiCoRm for a chat if you need any advice.

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