How to put the team back in teamwork
Here is a situation with which I was asked to help.
An agency had grown from 100 to 250 employees over several years. This required expansion of the programming management team from one person to three people. All three of these Program Managers were at an equal level in the organization; each reported directly to the Executive Director; each had a distinct area of responsibility.
The problem was that the original, long-serving Program Manager was not getting along with her two new peers. The Executive Director, by his own admission, had been slow to deal with the situation. He was reluctant to challenge the original Program Manager because she had carried the organization for years. She ran all of the programs by herself and did a good job given the limited resources the organization had at the time. She cared about outcomes for the people they supported, and cared for her staff. Everyone relied on her and looked to her for direction on anything to do with programming. She performed very well when she was the only Program Manager, but things turned sour when the management team expanded by two.
- The veteran Program Manager made important decisions without consulting her two new peers.
- She did not follow through appropriately on requests from her new peers for help and information.
- She was domineering in leadership meetings, often overstepping her bounds.
- She bullied her two new peers to complete work she wanted done, without considering the impact on their own work deadlines and commitments.
- She reacted extremely defensively whenever her new peers brought up their concerns, often complaining about them to the Executive Director after meetings when asked about her own behaviour.
The Executive Director thought the situation might be hopeless. He spent time with the two new Program Managers trying to help them figure out how to deal with the veteran. He even sent the three of them to a half-day team-building workshop. Nothing seemed to help.
To me, this situation seemed straightforward. It seemed like a textbook case where leadership trainer Linton Sellen’s work could help.
Prior to participating in leadership training, I, like the Executive Director in this case, had some misconceptions about teamwork. With Sellen, I learned that a team needs a clear leader who needs to behave in certain ways for the team to function well. Teams rarely function well if left to self-manage. There needs to be someone in authority and that person needs to deal quickly with any misconduct or any harmful internal competition..
Inspired by Sellen’s teachings, the solution I shared with this Executive Director was as follows: First, he needed to accept that this problem was not a teamwork issue per se. It was a case of misconduct on the part of his veteran Program Manager. The misconduct, to this point, was not malicious and did not require discipline of any sort. In fact, this misconduct was enabled by the Executive Director himself. He had not spent enough time working with this person, clarifying his expectations of her as the new Program Managers became her peers. He needed to point out to her directly that her behaviour was making the work of her peers more difficult. He needed to help her understand that by being so protective of her turf, she was diminishing her own status rather than protecting it. He also needed to point out to her that she was coming across as selfish and uncaring, exactly the opposite of what he knew her character to be. Finally, he had to assert his authority and explain the exact behaviours that would not be allowed to continue, and he needed to accept that his role is to lead this team and stay on top of each team member’s behaviour.
This situation did not clear up overnight, but it did ultimately resolve in dramatic fashion. The veteran Program Manager did become a much better team player over time and the Executive Director, by taking a more hands-on approach to leading this team, found that teamwork improved dramatically. The payoff for the Executive Director has been far fewer issues with team dynamics and performance. Ultimately, the group performed much better, thanks to a much healthier team dynamic based on the caring efforts of the Executive Director to be the leader that this team needed.
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