How do I get my team back?


I manage a very diverse team. Older, younger, men, women, gay, straight, quiet, vocal - the list goes on. It is a pretty small group as well.

I am a young manager and only two of my employees are actually younger than me.

So here is my question. I have two "power" team members who really set how the team is feeling and control the drama flow. At this point in time, it is very clear that they are out to get me. So much so that they have begun moving toward pressing a discrimination suit against me on behalf of another employee who they are friends with.

Here's the history. Employee A is a young and very immature employee with very inconsistent performance. She also happens to be a homosexual. I have absolutely no issue with her sexuality and never have. In fact I have been very fond of this employee and at times will act as a sounding board for personal issues she might have had.

After a few months of stellar performance it came crashing down; so much as to the point where I was contemplating terminating her based on performance. I coached, coached, trained, and counselled her more than I have any other employee.

The other reps on the team who happen to be very protective over this young member decide that I am picking on her. To make matters worse, during her shift, her partner came to our work to drop off something. During that time my employee went to the parking lot directly in front of our small business office where our customers park and was making out in front of the store. I asked this employee to come back in as they were on the clock. Their response was they were just dropping something off. I said that I had no issue with someone dropping something off but making out in the parking lot while on the clock was not okay.

After Employee A's "friends" and co-workers heard about this Employee B and C both encouraged Employee A to peruse a discrimination suit.

Now, my manager was witness to the inappropriate public display of affection that definitely would not have been accepted had it involved any employee, but now the rest of the team has turned against me.

Any advice would be great. I plan on talking with HR soon as Employee B went to my manager and we had to report the "discrimination" as a mandatory action. But both he and I are aware that it wasn't discrimination.

How do I sort out this mess and get my team back?

Shayla, California

Charles Helliwell's Answer:

Firstly put aside any thoughts about whether your team is older or younger, men or women, gay or straight, quiet or vocal, because it really doesn't matter.

Any team consists of a group of individuals not robots. That's your starting point and it is the same wherever you are and whatever you happen to do. So take that as given; it's hand you've been dealt and your skill as a manager is how well you play your hand. Sometimes the cards are good; sometimes they're bad, but mostly, they're distinctly average.

It sounds like your team is pretty average on the whole, which is fine, although your management of them is allowing them to lower their personal and professional productivity bar as opposed to raising it.

As a consequence the team, quite rightly, is blaming you and looking to you to raise the standards. Hence their mutual collaboration in focusing their anxiety and frustration on you. Every team is only as strong as its weakest link, and that's why you are where you are today.

So, what are you going to do about it ? Well, for a start, you're going to stop feeling sorry for yourself and start acting like an authoritative and capable manager, who has the answers to lead them out of this situation.

Firstly, you are going to create two sub-teams within your team in which you will place each of your 'power' team members. Then you will task each team to compete directly in the tasks they have to perform. You will create goals for each and the team which completes more goals each month will be rewarded with something like a night out for them and their partners.

Don't create any team leaders; if each team wants to appoint one then that's up them. All you want to see is high levels of commitment, performance and productivity.

The dynamic of this 'divide and rule' strategy will become clear very quickly. One team will consistently out-perform the other and your two 'power' colleagues will be too busy trying to destroy each other to focus any attention on you. It will also become very clear to the other members of your team that these two people are not working in their best interests either, and as a consequence they will look to you for guidance and leadership.

The outcome of this will be that in a relatively short time, the high performing and high potential members of your team will look to you to take decisive action over any team member who is either unwilling or incapable of making the contribution you want them to make.

At that point, you must make the positive changes you need to and you bring back the team into a single functioning unit, with the added bonus of having now identified the next layer of management potential to allow successful succession planning and your inevitable and well-deserved promotion for a job well done.

Myra White adds:

First you should not assume that all of your team is against you. A, B and C are problems but other more silent team members may be intimidated by B and C (your power team members) and secretly resent the power that they are exercising.

Your first step should be to retake command of your team by setting clear guidelines for team behavior and by making it clear that the same rules apply to everyone.

As the team manger, it is up to you to shape team culture and behavior rather than letting B and C set the tone for the team. It is also important to stress that everyone on the team is to be treated with respect including yourself.

If B and C are questioning or challenging your decisions or criticizing you in front of other team members, you should set clear boundaries both in your own mind and with the team as to what decisions are made by the team and what decisions are made by you.

This doesn't mean that you can't solicit team input on the decisions that you make but you should make it clear that the final decision is yours. If you feel undue pressure when meeting with the team or find yourself beginning to waver, just state that you will take the team's suggestions into consideration and inform the team of your decision at a later time.

You may feel uncomfortable managing people older than yourself but this is your job as team manager. You need to stop worrying about what members of your team think about you because this makes you vulnerable to criticism from people like B and C.

Remember that it is far more important to be respected by the members of your team rather than liked by them. Your job is to produce results, not to win a popularity contest.

By being concerned over what team members think about you, you are unconsciously giving them power. Just like people can smell fear, they can smell your insecurities and use them to manipulate you.

With regard to threats of a discrimination complaint, you can protect yourself by carefully documenting A's poor performance including episodes such as what happened in the parking lot. For each event be sure to include the date and time as well as an objective description of exactly what A did or what A failed to do.

Such descriptions should not include your emotional reactions to or criticisms of A's behavior. You should also keep records of each coaching session that you have with A. If you haven't kept these records in the past, sit down as soon as possible and create a detailed record based on your memory of events.


About our Expert

Charles Helliwell
Charles Helliwell

For almost 20 years, Charles Helliwell has been enjoying a lifestyle and making a living as a behavioural and relationship mentor specialising in the personal and professional development of individuals and teams in the workplace.

Older Comments

However diverse or small your team is, the first priority for you as a manager is to demonstrate leadership. There are many issues involved in what is described.

You might like to think of the following actions:

1. Have a discussion with the two 'power centres' and find out what is their grouse. They may be jealous of you. They may feel their opportunities for growth have been taken by you. Whatever. Let them know that you are now in charge. You understand their feelings but they must work with you or look for some place else. 2. Use their strengths and ideas to improve team performance. Assuming they have that expertise, of course. Recognize their efforts and attribute the progress to their ideas. 3. As far as the third person is concerned, don't get brow beaten by threats of discrimination. Recommend strong action be taken against her as per the applicable norms for behavior unbecoming of an employee. If she goes to your boss, make it clear to him/her that your authority as a boss is being questioned. Your boss is bound to support you. If this does not happen, that place may not be worth your staying on, anyway.

Prem Rao