Leading the Unleadable
By Alan Willett
Your team probably includes some difficult people. You may not have chosen them – they could have been inherited – but they are your responsibility, even if at times you don’t know what to do.
Should you shunt them off onto a project? Chastise them in public? Ignore the situation and hope the team handles it? Minimize their responsibilities? Put them on a performance improvement plan? Or try to move them into another group so they become somebody else’s headache?
“Too often, leaders ignore their people problems for too long because they are afraid of conflict or, if they do act, handle the situations poorly because of inexperience or not knowing what to do. Complicating matters, the difficult people may be even more difficult to replace or the leader could have a close relationship with them,” leadership development consultant Alan Willett writes in Leading the Unleadable, stressing that how you handle them will define you as a leader.
He continues: “Not acting can damage everyone around the difficult people, leading others to leave before the difficult people themselves quit. The reverse can be just as bad. Sometimes leaders terminate difficult people too quickly, which harms the group by giving it no chance to change the difficult people and reclaim them.”
They come in many flavours. He offers these four as a sample:
- The cynic: Everything you and the organization do is wrong. Sarcasm, cynicism, pessimism, whining, and general negativity can be acceptable, even helpful, in small doses but with these folks it’s a constant, disturbing drumbeat.
- The slacker: The individual is not living up to the team’s standards. There can be many reasons for this – perhaps a competence problem, perhaps a bad fit of skill to task, and sometimes an attitude problem, for example. But as a leader you have to face up to the fact the contribution from the individual is not sufficient.
- The diva: This person craves the spotlight and dislikes anything that distracts from them being at center stage. “This is often a difficult leadership challenge, as most people develop their diva personalities because they are actually very good at what they do,” he notes.
- The pebble in the shoe: These people are a constant annoyance to teammates. It may be they have ready excuses for everything, even if sometimes those are plausible, or they are too critical of others. Willett refers to their actions as “bug bites” that have a cumulative negative effect.
And those are just subordinates! Perhaps other leaders alongside you are just as difficult to deal with. Some may be too ambitious, resulting in constant clashes, are mavericks, or are plagued by a leadership crisis in their own team. Beyond that, you may have too many bosses with conflicting priorities, a superior who wants to micromanage you, or irrational pressure from above.
Whatever the issue, he says you need to take out of it this vital message: “The trouble is your fault, even when it’s not.”
Too often leaders try to downplay the problem or lay responsibility or blame elsewhere. They moan about needing a lot of time (or a new set of tools) to deal with the difficulty. But you must accept that the troubles are your responsibility, and adopt a mindset to lead the unleadable.
That mindset will require these key features:
- Appreciate the diversity of every leaf: Managers can be preoccupied and miss things. So before you get outraged, consider that when you encounter some behaviour or action that appears unacceptable perhaps there is something you don’t understand and can learn.
- Start with the belief that everyone has good intentions: In that vein, curb your suspicion. Most people have good intentions and are working toward what they believe is the better good of the organization and your specific department. “Even if they are annoying, or doing things that you believe are counter to the good of the organization, it is unlikely that they are damaged, stupid, or evil,” he says.
- Accept reality but don’t let reality define you: Steve Jobs set a high bar, asking people to do things they considered unrealistic. But he didn’t let so-called reality hold him – or his people – back. If you want to be an exceptional leader, you should see reality, accept reality, and then move on to deal with reality in a manner that sets a high bar of achievement for your team members, troublesome or not. Keep in mind most people prefer a high bar of excellence in their workplace – they are achievement-oriented.
- Understand the power of gelled teams: Your role is to create a culture where people accomplish extraordinary things. And that happens by letting them gel in a team – solve issues themselves and take the organization further. When they come to you with problems, try to hold back and let them find the solution themselves. “As you grow as a leader, the troubles you and your organization encounter will not diminish, but as your skills grow at creating the desired culture, the number of times you must personally get involved will greatly diminish,” he advises.
- Treat trouble as information-rich data: When trouble occurs it provides important information about the specific incident but also the process, people involved, the culture you are creating through your leadership, and you. Don’t ignore that information. Use it to make the organization better.
But even with that outlook, you could face some difficult personnel situations. He helps with a chart and process for what he calls “Decision Time – Remove or Improve,” helping to assess a specific employee. It revolves around six criteria to grade the individual:
- The person’s ability to take feedback and improve.
- Is the person well loved? (Sometimes such individuals have a huge following, sometimes a limited but fervent base of fans, and sometimes they are loathed by everyone. It helps to consider that.)
- What are his or her collaboration skills?
- How does the individual’s skills and experience fit with current needs?
- How do those skills and experiences fit with future needs?
- If the person is removed, how difficult will it be to acquire the skills you need in the time frame needed?
He advises you to put those elements on a spreadsheet-like grid beside cells marked from – 2 to +2, the ratings you can assign for each criteria. He says often it will fairly quickly show you what you need to do as you study the scores. At the same time, he stresses: “The table will not make the decision. You have to make a decision. If you feel stuck on the horns of what the best option is… talk to someone who can help.”
The questions in the chart force you to consider the consequences. You probably don’t want a schism if the troublesome person is ejected, and you could face that if there are many supporters. You don’t want to lose skills that are important today, particularly if it will be difficult to replace the individual. Sometimes you realize as you fill out the chart that the individual is a big pain but also important to immediate or future success.
Although the remove-or improve title seems to present only two options, in fact a range exists. He mentions these:
- You can wait to see if the situation corrects itself. This is rarely the best solution but should be carefully considered.
- You can try to help the person correct the situation within the job he or she holds.
- You could hire an external expert to help coach the individual.
- There can be small modifications to the job to make it work better for everyone.
- The person can be moved to a new position or new responsibility within the same project or team.
- The individual can be moved to a different part of the organization – one where he or she can be more effective, not merely transferring trouble to get it off your shoulders.
- The person can be removed from the organization. Sometimes you must sacrifice one to save the whole.
I found the book a little loose at points, veering from the focus on troublesome folks to more general management or “exceptional leadership,” as he calls it, not that the two are not linked but the advice in those sections was fairly commonplace and a firmer focus seemed preferable. Still there are lots of ideas here to help you understand yourself and your situation when you oversee difficult people, and the section on Remove or Improve may be a huge stress saver some day for you.