We’ve all been there. Whether we’re leading a team or just a member, there always seem to be some people on it who are impossible. They drive us crazy. Some may stir the pot, be rude, not deliver what they’ve been assigned, or gossip and complain, blame others, grab credit, etc.
And nothing seems to make them stop. Rational pleas for cooperation, stern reminders from their managers to contribute, being ignored by the rest of the team — it feels hopeless. So you muddle along even as you dread working with them.
Identifying the Real Problem
Chances are you’re making some assumptions that may be in your way. I bet one of them is that you believe great teamwork means everyone works together without strife. You agree and get along. You believe that if there’s conflict, it’s a problem. Because the best teams are harmonious teams, right?
Nothing could be further from the truth. Recent research shows that teams that get along and think alike underperform when compared to teams that have conflicts and disagreements.
Whenever a team member has the courage to stand up and say, “Wait a minute, I think we need to take a different approach” or “We should do X” when everyone wants to do Q — you’re more likely to find a passionate team delivering superior innovative solutions.
It comes down to understanding what teamwork and collaboration mean — and what are the true barriers to teams working productively. Because disagreements and conflicts aren’t always barriers. They can be the crucibles from which superior solutions emerge.
Yet there are major differences. There are some colleagues who need to clean up their acts. Others are irritants with genuine divergent points of view. Then there's the deliberate saboteur. You can keep productive with the first two, if you’ve got frameworks in place. But the last type, the saboteur, is lethal to any organization.
Getting On Board
Most of the time, “out of step” colleagues can get on board with a framework such as a team charter. An effective team charter includes: the team’s shared goal, roles and responsibilities, processes and guidelines, communications mechanisms, assignments, timelines, performance expectations, and core values.
Having a team charter can stop most misbehavior before it starts. If anyone’s behavior becomes an issue, correcting it is everyone's responsibility. A neutral, factual conversation can stop most problems with the charter as the focal point. And applying the charter fairly to all members takes away any personal sting.
Sand in the Oyster
Every team needs people who think differently from the others. That diversity makes the team stronger. Diverse viewpoints often create conflicts. Conflicts fuel deep passionate discussions and spur creativity in each other.
Like sand in an oyster, the person who challenges the status quo and forces the group to “think different” adds value. These interactions create a pearl of great price. The highest performing innovative teams encourage people to voice dissenting opinions and alternative ideas.
Saboteurs, on the other hand, are like cancer cells. These are people who drain energy and resources. Left unchecked, they destroy what they touch.
Saboteurs break equipment, lose documents, falsify information, lie, steal, cheat, and create conflicts setting one team member against another.
Most are bullies and gossips. They seek to advance themselves at whatever cost to others and the organization.
What makes them so hard to identify and confront is their packaging. They are often passive-aggressive and it takes awhile for us to figure that out. They seem industrious and hard working. They are often charming, delightful, witty, attractive, even fun to be with — until cornered or caught.
But confront them we must, or suffer the consequences.
Saboteurs push our buttons. We get annoyed, irritated, even angry. We start to argue with them or make snide comments. This is exactly what a saboteur wants. It puts him in control and leaves us feeling inept and “less than.”
The best way to neutralize saboteurs is to expose them. This is one reason why having a team charter is crucial. With rules spelled out and agreed to up front by all members, the moment a saboteur violates the rules, a spotlight will shine upon him. Saboteurs hate spotlights. They hide in the shadows because they don’t want to be accountable. They want the perks, but not the responsibility.
When team members behave appropriately, stop reacting to the saboteur’s button-pushing, and remain neutral and firm when interacting with him — the spotlight gets brighter and brighter…and brighter. Once exposed, the saboteur will either conform or leave.
Many saboteurs are unaware of their behavior. Once made aware, they’re appalled and contrite. These who are willing, ready, and make positive changes can become valued team members once again. It takes a lot of hard work to earn people’s trust back. But once achieved, the turnaround can be inspiring. Those who won’t or can’t make a change will leave or must be escorted out the door.
Observe with Care, Act with Purpose
All too often we misunderstand people and label them as “difficult” without seeing who they are and what they contribute. It’s easy to label someone as argumentative or difficult, when in fact they are sincere in bringing new thinking and ideas.
We need to observe people with care and compassion and not rush to judgment. But once we identify any saboteurs, acting swiftly is critical to the long-term health of our businesses.