The office phone rings. "Goodfriend & Associates, Mike Goodfriend speaking." In my phone's earpiece, I hear a serious tone from my client, "Hey Mike, Mary Jones. Hope you're doing well. Mike, it looks like I have a project for you. We have a problem team member on our leadership team. She's becoming quite a cancer to our team and we will need to deal with her either through coaching or some other means. When can you come meet with me to talk about what you can do to help her?"

Not an uncommon phone call for me to receive. Frustration with an individual who is considered the "ugly duckling." It could be the person is not a good communicator. Or maybe the person seems to always resist, block or tear down decisions that are agreed upon by everyone but him/her. The individual may have style or personality differences with a number of people on the team. The leader has probably tried to give feedback to this individual but the person just blames the leader or other team members.

By the time, I get this phone call, trust in this team member has already broken down. The leader and team member have made several good faith efforts to mediate problems between the individual and another team member. The leader has had a one-on-one with the individual to communicate concerns. But to no avail, the problems with the team member continues.

The problem team member is in some ways like the story of "The Ugly Duckling" written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1844. In the story, the ugly duckling wasn't like his brothers and sisters or like any of the other ducks. He was ugly by duck standards. No matter where he went, he was ridiculed and made fun of. People seen as problem team members often don't fit in and are seen as different. They get a reputation within the company/team as being the "ugly duckling."

What I've Learned About "Problem Team Members"

Now I know you probably are thinking that I am going to tell you that the problem team member is not an ugly duckling but is really a swan -- just like in the story. Here is what I have learned:

  • People who are labeled as problem team members sometimes do have issues that make them difficult to work with. They may actually be causing some of the conflict or ineffective teamwork. They may be great technicians or knowledge experts in their field but sometimes their interpersonal skills need development. They may need to improve how they present their ideas during meetings. Maybe they rub people the wrong way. They may need to learn about constructive ways to critique other's ideas and approaches so they are not always seen as a resistor or the attacker.
  • Some problem team members think or act in a nontraditional manner. I have learned from the Birkman Method (behavioral profile instrument) that some people don't think, speak and act in traditional ways. That uniqueness doesn't make them weird. But it does mean they bring a special value to the team -- by being different, not by being the same. Unfortunately, organizations and teams often expect all their team members to conform to decisions and behaviors. They sometimes see a person as a problem team member because they are not conforming to the traditional mindset.
  • Problem team members are sometimes in the wrong job or on the wrong team. Isn't it interesting how these problem team members thrive on certain teams but have difficulty on other teams. Maybe certain jobs or certain teams are just wrong for them.
  • There are sometimes rifts between the problem team member and another. There may have been some events that caused these individuals to lose trust in the other's competency, reliability or character. This can result in team members taking sides or collectively seeing one as the favorite and one as the "un-favorite."

Actions to Deal With a Problem Team Member Situation

Do Nothing

This is probably the most common "action." Doing nothing seems less painful to many team leaders/members than addressing an issue like this head-on. Instead of experiencing the pain of addressing the issue, they are willing to experience the pain of ongoing frustration for months and years to come.

Fire the Sorry Loser

"Let's get rid of our dead weight before he (or she) sinks us, right? The problem is with that loser. Not with the rest of us."

It is quite common for team members and team leaders to want to make the "sorry loser" just go away. However, problem team members probably have capabilities or technical competencies that the team needs. A team member is also part of a system, a team dynamic. Maybe some time and effort is needed to be clear on what the individual needs to improve or what aspect of the team's dynamics need to change. Then a decision on whether to terminate or not, can be properly considered.

Help the Problem Team Member Change or Develop

When any team member is under fire, they often have to defend and protect themselves. When you feel like you are being attacked by your own team, it's hard to know who to trust. But if the goal is to improve the situation with the problem team member, then there needs to be separate conversations with the individual and the team -- to acknowledge the situation and to call a truce. An individual needs a safe zone so they can focus on their own development.

As an independent coach, I see the benefits that individuals get when they have an objective sounding board - an advisor/coach. A coach can help the individual take ownership for their own development and can provide developmental tools/methods to assist. There are advantages of having an external coach like me but there are also situations where there is some advantage to have a supervisor, peers or internal development professionals coach the individual.

For the individual to change/improve, they must want to change from the inside -- from the heart. There needs to be some personal desire and motivation to change, for their own self interest. I remember my first coaching assignment around 10 years ago. The individual received a lot of feedback about how tough he was to work with. He struggled with accepting that feedback. But at one point, he finally accepted that he needed to change -- because the feedback he was receiving was similar to what his first wife told him. He said he didn't want his second marriage to end like his first one.

Some individual believe their struggles are as a result of their working environment or work team. Outside factors will always have an impact. But the individual needs to see it as their own responsibility to influence any problems in their environment/team - not expect others to change as a condition before they will develop/improve. As the individual focuses on improvement, the team's leader should also consider how to create a better working environment that leverages the effectiveness of this team member.

Intervene with the Team

Sometimes the team dynamics have a greater impact on a problem team member situation than we think. Every team develops its own personality and culture - some team members have a good fit with that culture and some don't. It is first important for the team to understand those attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviors that are productive and those that are not.

I am often asked to conduct an independent assessment of the team. As part of the assessment, I learn about the frustration regarding the problem team member, the problem team member's frustration with the team, the team's effectiveness in delivering on its goals and the culture/norms of the team. My role is to confidentially assess the team's effectiveness in working together. This assessment helps the team see the issues in an objective manner, not as personal attacks. It also helps them take some ownership for their own effectiveness -- even when an individual seems to be struggling to meet other team members' expectations.

Finding some common ground to build on is usually the next step in the intervention. For a leadership team, it might be collectively developing the function's goals or mission. For a project team, it might be developing the team's charter. Or it might just be getting agreement on a teamwork model -- so expectations of behaviors and attitudes are agreed upon. It might also be to learn about the collective personality or style of the team. These activities help take some focus off the divisions between people and starts building bridges between people. This also helps interrupt the unproductive patterns of how the team works. It helps reinforce that our goals really are common and that although we have our differences, in the end, we are all generally on the same page.

Building Trust Between Team Members

The intervention activities described above can change the interactive dynamics of the team and build more collective optimism in the team. However, sustaining this new mindset will be dependent on whether team members deal with some root trust issues between the problem team member and other team members. Improving trust requires a process for open/honest conversations about expectations, character, competency and reliability. When a team member and a problem team member begin to understand and accept each other's true intentions, then they are more comfortable at asking for certain kinds of changes in how they work together. Building a relationship contract is a worthwhile process for making commitments that will build upon and sustain the progress in trust building.

I have worked with team members who say they respect each other as individuals, but it is clear that they don't trust in the other person's competency or ability to deliver. I help them work through a multi-step process to communicate their concerns to each other, understand each other's style, better understand what events and motivations drive their behaviors and making commitments to address each other's concerns. The two may not be the best of friends afterwards but they have built a higher level of trust that improves how they work together. It also helps the team work together more effectively.

*      *      *

I know that some of you are wondering if this article is about you or one of your current/past team members. The fact is that ugly ducklings in the workplace are fairly common. The duckling may really be ugly or others may just see him/her as ugly. Some team leaders just want to "fire the sorry loser" and not waste any more time. In some cases, termination sooner rather than later may be the right decision. But it's also more common than you think to see an ugly duckling develop into a beautiful swan.

© Michael R. Goodfriend, Goodfriend & Associates, Inc., 2008

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"Mike, thanks for sharing, some good learnings and enjoyed the correlation. I will have to use this on my British colleagues."

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  A clever way to explain and consider the Birkman Method. I appreciate you sending this to me!

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