It can happen to even the most competent leaders. Your team members disengage or stop coming to meetings. They refuse to, or simply don’t do, what you ask of them. They begin meeting without you. When these things happen, it may be that your team has turned against you. For a leader, this can be a disheartening and terrifying experience, but it is not irreparable. By being open to what is happening, listening to your team and being direct, you can regain the group’s confidence and your effectiveness as a leader.
What the Experts Say
“Building strong, good teams at the beginning is the best thing you can do to prevent problems in the first place,” says Deborah Ancona, the Seley Distinguished Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of X-Teams: How to Build Teams that Lead, Innovate, and Succeed. Unfortunately, even your best efforts may not be able to prevent a team from turning. Teams begin to disrespect leaders for all sorts of reasons. You may have failed to involve them in important decisions, or claimed too much credit for their work. “If team members do not feel respected by the leader, they will reciprocate the sentiment,” says Deborah H. Gruenfeld, the Moghadam Family Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior and Co-Director of the Executive Program for Women Leaders at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Or it may be that certain individuals don’t respect each other, or are holding grudges, and are turning on you because you haven’t done anything about it. “Typically people start something when they feel they haven’t been heard or something has happened that they think is unfair,” says Gabriella Jordan, the President of the Education Division at The Handel Group, an executive coaching firm based in New York City, and co-author of “Designing Your Life,” a course taught through MIT. Regardless of the reason for discontent, you may be able to earn back your team’s trust and commitment by using the following approach.
Name What is Happening
As with most problems, the first step is to admit to yourself what is going on. This is not always easy. “The signs that a team has turned hostile can be tough to discern,” says Gruenfeld. Therefore, you need to be attuned to signs of conflict. “Teams that have turned on their leader but are not prepared to address the problem might appear pleasant but ‘checked out.’ They might be reluctant to engage or spend time with the leader, fearing that their true feelings will leak out,” says Gruenfeld. “In many cases teams that have lost faith in their leader will respond not with overt hostility, but with what looks more like apathy. The energy that once went toward supporting the leader’s goals and initiatives will be deflected toward other, more personally satisfying activities, like gossiping about the leader, avoiding team assignments, looking for new employment, and goofing off.”
Once you’ve identified the problem, it’s critical that you acknowledge it to your team as well. Otherwise it can become the elephant in the room. “If you’re pretending that nothing’s wrong and the rest of your team knows there is, it can be really problematic,” says Ancona.
Understand the Underlying Cause
To be able to address the issue at hand, you need to know what caused it. Find the original source of the discontent. Is one person driving the negativity or are the feelings shared across the team? Are people taking issue with your leadership or are their problems with other team members causing them to rebel against you? Ask direct and open questions. If you hear second-hand about the original source of the dissatisfaction, ask the messenger to have that person come talk to you directly.
Own the Issue
No matter the cause of the problem, recognize that things became destructive under your watch. Publicly acknowledge what you have done to contribute to the problem, and explain what you are going to do address it. “The irony is that people think that if they look vulnerable, it puts them at risk. In fact, it makes them more powerful,” says Jordan. Ancona agrees. “Great leaders are able to get up and say, ‘Thanks for the feedback. I realize I haven’t been doing X. These are the steps I’m taking to correct this and I’d appreciate feedback on how it’s going.” Be direct and ask for help changing the situation.
Listen and Encourage Directness
Jordan recommends enforcing a no-gossip policy across the board. “Gossip is so destructive,” she says. Tell people if they have a problem with anyone else on the team, including you, they should speak to the person directly — even if it is you. Demonstrate that you are willing to listen and deal with whatever the issue is. When the issue is more team-wide, “You want to give people an opportunity to be heard,” says Jordan. You can do this in a public forum, or in one-on-one meetings if people aren’t comfortable speaking in a group. Other options may be to send out a survey or bring in an outsider who can gather information on your behalf. The method is less important than the action of asking for input. This allows people to air out grievances as well as establishes open lines of communication to prevent future revolts.
When the Problem Doesn’t Go Away
When a team is particularly defiant or upset, you may not be able to resolve the problem alone. Find a mediator — either an outside coach or an uninvolved person from another part of the organization — to get the issues out in the open and negotiate a resolution. Working with a coach may help you understand why your style or approach is not effective with your team. If that fails, you may need to step down as leader. Or, as Ancona says, “If there is a mismatch with the leader and the task at hand, the team may need to be broken up.” Jordan adds, “If you can’t resolve why they are unhappy, maybe they don’t belong there.”
Principles to Remember
- Be open to hearing your team’s complaints and feedback
- Institute a “no gossip” policy so that people deal directly with one another
- Take responsibility for your role in creating the situation
- Pretend nothing is happening because, most likely, everyone is aware of it
- Be afraid to show vulnerability
- Allow negative feelings to fester — give people a chance to air their grievances
Case Study #1: Getting your team back and saving your business
In late 2004, Bentley Meeker, CEO/Owner of Bentley Meeker Lighting and Staging Inc, an event lighting design firm in Manhattan, was ready to close his company. The business was doing okay but his employees were suffering: morale was low and people were angry and resentful. “The soul of my business was black,” Bentley recalls. He had heard rumblings of gossip about his personal life and how he ran things. “I was very permissive in that way because I let it happen,” he says. His girlfriend at the time convinced him to work with an executive coach before he closed. He was resistant at first and unsure that this situation was resolvable.
He started by gathering his staff for an “air out session.” It became clear that people were dwelling on past conflicts that had never been addressed. In fact, one clash was over who had picked up a dinner tab several years before. Bentley instructed that they start communicating directly. There couldn’t be any gossip if they were going to turn things around. He also acknowledged his role in creating the destructive atmosphere. “My own commitment to being right was giving them permission to be committed to being right. So they were spending time gathering evidence to support their being right rather than focusing on the business,” he explains.
Once his employees started having the difficult conversations needed to resolve their conflicts, they began to feel more united and committed. “It was all about clean communication,” Bentley says. Soon they realized there was pent-up client demand they hadn’t been able to serve because they were so wrapped up in what was going on inside the business. In the next six years, the company’s revenue tripled.
Case Study #2: Helping a manager regain her team’s trust
Several years ago, Josh Corcoran,* the publisher of an international fashion magazine, began hearing complaints about Katherine*, a member of his executive team. Her direct reports felt she didn’t care about them. They accused her of being fixated on pleasing Josh, not representing their opinions or hard work, and blaming them when problems arose, without taking any responsibility herself.
Six months before, as part of a restructuring process, the leadership team had agreed on a management doctrine dictating how they would resolve conflicts. It included a policy of direct communication. So Josh encouraged Katherine’s team members to go directly to her. He knew their criticisms would be difficult for Katherine to hear so he reached out to her as well. She was frustrated. She thought her loyalty should be to him and that her team members didn’t understand her role. Josh helped her see that to be effective, she would have to stop driving her employees so hard and take into consideration what they needed in addition to what he wanted. He also helped her understand what role she had played in creating the problem even if it wasn’t entirely her fault. “The people who had issues weren’t really giving her time to make mistakes and grow. They could’ve been more direct and tolerant when situations went down,” Josh said.
Katherine sat down with her team members and apologized. She explained that she had responded to the pressure of her job in a way that didn’t respect their perspectives. Once she had taken responsibility for her part, the team was much more forgiving. In a matter of weeks, Katherine was able to turn the situation around and regain her group’s trust.
Source: Harvard Business Review