Leading a Challenging Team

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood” - Dr Stephen Covey

Though there are problems in terms of sheer scale when leading a large team, sometimes leading a smaller one can be just as - if not more - challenging. Every issue is exaggerated  through proximity; a staff absence or departure can have a far greater impact across the organisation; and ill feeling can have disastrous consequences in a short period of time. Knowing how to manage a difficult team can be so hard.


But let’s turn that on all on its head for a moment, because the reverse is also true. If the team is motivated, happy, on the same page and working in unison towards the same vision, the tiniest tweaks can have a massively positive impact.

One of the most effective ways of taking the first steps to creating  - or developing - a truly collegiate group is to understand the individual behaviour styles of your team. Knowing how a colleague processes information is the first step to understanding why they respond as they do in any given situation. This is incredibly powerful not only in avoiding conflict but also in creating a balanced and varied approach to problem solving. 

But what do we mean by behaviour styles? Do we need to psychoanalyse our employees before letting them onto the payroll? Well, some organisations do of course… but no, there’s a far simpler approach.

The temptation is, of course,  to employ or promote a team of clones who share your own character traits and points of view. And that’s obviously a mistake. Debate, challenge and disagreement are healthy tools towards driving improvement - as long as there is alignment in terms of core values and vision.

The Importance of Different Behavioural Styles

I once led a team of 29 women and one man. The man was ostensibly the manager of the team, had two assistant managers below him and then 27 on the “shop floor” as it were. The man garnered no respect whatsoever from his team - partly through his own making, partly through personal circumstances beyond anyone’s control, and so was struggling to make any progress with the team at all.

I’m not going to go down the obvious route here, though, and suggest that the problem was that the whole team was female. It wasn’t. The real problem was that the core team was made up almost entirely of Expressive and Driver personalities - high force individuals who either saw emotional responses as some kind of weakness, or reacted to situations with extreme and overt emotion. I was once cornered by one of the team who hectored me to “Have a word with Chantelle - she keeps giving me dirty looks, I’m going to swing for her!”

I tried the usual tried and trusted approaches of a team building day (almost leading to a fight with oars during the raft building) and a team night out (alcohol, of course, can lead to some unpleasant truths being expressed. Not always in the calmest manner…)

I wasn’t addressing the real problem, though. 

It was only when I began re-evaluating roles within the team and then, as people moved on to other roles within and beyond the organisation, employing new people, that things began to change.

Looking back, I was doing two things: getting the right people in the right seats, as per the advice of Jim Collins, and sub-consciously appointing people with a range of behavioural styles.

Previously, individuals in the team had been at best suspicious of, at worst antagonistic towards, anyone who “wasn’t like them.” By bringing a group of people into the organisation within the new structure who were then demonstrating their worth without being deemed to be a “threat”, the team were able to reflect that being different wasn’t always a bad thing.

In their hearts, everyone on the team wanted the best for the organisation, and genuinely put their all into the job - which isn’t always the case - and that made the changes easier; that and the fact they they occurred organically, without individuals being forced out but rather moving on of their own accord.

And with the appointment of different personalities, in effect behavioural styles, came an increase in productivity and effectiveness. Conversations became more work-focused and less around personal issues. I suppose what I was trying to do was break up cliques, and in doing so created a more efficient team.

Had I known then what I know now about identifying those behavioural styles and enabling them to more effectively work with one another, I could have done so much more in my quest to learn how to manage a difficult team.

And that’s what you can do.

Understand that your team - however challenging - is made up of individuals, and the way that they work together can be facilitated by you. I’m not ignoring other research around learning preferences or cognitive diversity, but get that balance of behavioural styles right, help them understand how to bring the best out of one another, and the way forward will become a lot less stressful for all of you.

To find out more how to manage a difficult team, please get in touch with us.

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