“Robert” (definitely not his real name) was part of a team that I once led. He had worked for the organization long before I arrived and held a lot of undocumented institutional and team-level knowledge. He was smart and was important to the team, especially due to his intimate knowledge of details vital to our ability to deliver to our clients. The thing was, Robert also had a temper.
In fact, he had a tendency to rub our most important clients the wrong way, particularly when convinced that he was right and they were, let’s say, “idiots.” At first, I had major concerns about being able to keep him on the team. He was definitely different than my ideal team member. I was used to getting along well with everyone who worked for me—being able to find common ground and share a laugh, and wanting everyone on my team to bring a positive attitude as much of the time as possible. Robert seemed beyond my reach in that way. He didn’t seem to have a sense of humor. He was not someone I would choose to be friends with outside of work. I didn’t know quite what to do with him.
Until I did.
I finally concluded a couple of key things that served my leadership from that day on. First, I realized that although it is my great preference, I did not have to LIKE a member of my team for them to nonetheless be a valued member of the team and someone I could both appreciate and work with productively. I reminded myself that not everyone is like me in terms of wanting to relate to co-workers in a warm, personal way.
And I also tried to understand our work world from his perspective. Over time, I grew to know a bit about his history, his hurts and the disappointments that he carried with him, as well as his concerns about our organization, our clients, and our team. I learned these things because I took the time to get to know him as a person, rather than shut him out as “someone I didn’t like.” I let him know I was listening to him and we implemented a number of changes that were his ideas, for which I gave him credit publicly. Slowly, I could sense that he was relaxing a little, adopting more of a positive attitude about things, and over time, he shared more about his home life.
And—importantly--the instances of his ticking off our clients became fewer and fewer.
I ended up leaving the organization before my “Robert project” was over; i.e., before I really got to a place with him that I wanted to be, but I was happy with how far we had gotten. And while I can’t say that I ever truly enjoyed being around him, I definitely did transform my initial resistance to him and found a way to embrace and appreciate what he had to offer as I grew to understand it.
How about you? What’s your experience of dealing with a “problem child” on your team? I welcome your comments below!